Her Mother’s Secret is the latest book from Australian author Natasha Lester, which is a sweeping story of love, ambition, and courage in the face of society’s disapproval. In England 1918, Leonora secretly makes cosmetics in her father’s chemist shop, until a series of tragedies force her to board a ship to New York City. Along the way, she meets Everett Forsyth, heir to a department store.
Fast track to New York City, 1939, where Everett’s daughter, Alice, receives a letter that invites her to feature in cosmetic advertisements. But why do her parents forbid it?
After reading the book we had to find out more, so we had a chat with Natasha Lester about what inspired the book, and the history of the cosmetics industry.
Recently we had Natasha in for the Better Reading Podcast, discussing in depth about the writing process, the book publishing world, and her most recent book Her Mother’s Secret. You can listen here.
Better Reading: Hi Natasha, first off congratulations for the publication of Her Mother’s Secret! Could you tell us about the book?
Natasha Lester: Her Mother’s Secret begins the day before Armistice Day in 1918. It’s the story of Leonora (Leo for short) who’s been making cosmetics in the back room of her father’s chemist shop throughout the war to supply the nurses working in the army hospital camp in the English town of Sutton Veny where Leo lives. Leo dreams of one day, after the war, being able to do something more with her cosmetics than only sell them to the nurses.
But as soon as the war ends, Spanish flu sweeps in. The consequences of this are so devastating for Leo that she decides to move away from England, to a place unaffected by war, to a city where people might be more open to her cosmetics than the English are. On her way to take ship to New York, she meets a man, Everett Forsyth, and the repercussions of this meeting are felt for the next twenty years.
The book spans the period 1918-1939 and is about Leo’s attempts to be a part of the fledgling cosmetics industry, as well as her attempts to convince society that if women want to wear cosmetics, they should be able to.
BR: What inspired the book?
NL: It was inspired by two things. Firstly, I used to work as the Marketing Manager for Maybelline cosmetics. One of the oft-repeated tales around the company was about a girl called Mabel who wanted darker lashes to impress the man she was going out on a date with one night. Mabel’s brother mixed her up a concoction of lampblack and Vaseline, thus creating the world’s first mascara. He named it Maybelline by combining Mabel’s name with the word Vaseline.
It was, of course, only available to buy via mail order as mascara was considered far too scandalous to sell in department stores. I wanted to write about that time of change for women, and I wanted to write about a woman who was at the forefront of that change, a woman who had the courage to push back against a society that saw fit to tell women what they could and could not do.
Her Mother’s Secret was also inspired by an ABC News report on Anzac Day about a soldier who’d been wounded three times in World War I. He’d survived each of those woundings, only to die in a hospital in Sutton Veny, England, on Armistice Day of the Spanish flu. The tragedy of that really shook me—that he survived serious war wounds only to die of influenza on the day peace was declared—and so the book is also about the effect of living through times and experiences like that, and how it might change a young woman.
BR: Much of the book revolves around cosmetics and changing views of women throughout time. Was that inspired by your years working in the cosmetics industry?
NL: Yes it was. The more I began to research the early beginnings of the cosmetics industry, the more I began to realise that this was a a story that needed to be told. Because, at the time my book is set, women who wore more than powder and pale coloured lipstick were considered harlots and ladies of the night and were judged and abused accordingly. There was much debate in the press about the morals of such women, who were really just ordinary people wanting to try something new.
And I began to realise that, while in some ways, many things have changed and we are now able to buy a wide range of cosmetics very easily, in other ways many things have not changed. Open any magazine these days and you’ll find an article which judges a woman for the amount of makeup she’s wearing. How often do you see articles that talk about the fact that if women don’t wear enough makeup they won’t succeed at a job interview, and how many times do you see articles deriding a celebrity’s make-up choices, or interviews with men saying they prefer women who look ‘natural’? We can’t get it right; according to the media, we’re always wearing too much or not enough makeup. My book is set 100 years ago but we’re still having the same kinds of conversations as people were having in Leo’s time.
BR: 1918 England, and 1939 New York. Two settings and time periods very different from each other. How do you tackle the challenges of capturing those places convincingly?
NL: I do a lot of research. One of the things I’m most fascinated with is the fact that the two world wars are like catastrophic brackets around a huge time of social change for women. Everything in the intervening years is affected by the fallout of the first world war and the fear of another world war occurring. So I’m approaching the period through the lens of how it affected women, and how the fear of tragedy on a scale never before witnessed makes people behave in ways they mightn’t ordinarily.
I think when you look at things from the human angle and build up the time and place around your character’s particular fears and loves and desires, then you can’t help but do it convincingly. It’s when the time and place is mere window dressing that the author tends to fail.
NL: Yes I do! In fact my husband jokes that I choose places to set my books in based on where I want to travel to next! In all seriousness, I think it’s so important to have your feet on the ground in the places you want to write about, to walk the streets, to take lots of photographs and by doing that, you find the magic, the unexpected details and locations that make your book feel authentic and true.
So I’ve been to New York a couple of times for book research—I even used my experience of being stuck in a hotel off the Bowery in Hurricane Sandy without power and running water to evoke the sections of the book where Leo lives in a boardinghouse off the Bowery beneath the claustrophobic dark of the elevated railway tracks.
Of course you can do a lot of research online but nothing beats sitting in a dusty archive and browsing through the original source material and that’s what I always do. And if I have to go to New York to do that, then so be it!
BR: And on that note, how do you combine aspects of reality and history into your fiction?
NL: As much as possible, everything happening around my characters is based on reality. So Leo gets a job at Elizabeth Arden’s Red Door Salon when she arrives in New York and the description of the salon and the beauty treatments Leo administers are all based on fact. Leo has another job as a window dresser at the Lord & Taylor department store and much of that is based on the actual window dressing practices of the time.
The places Leo visits are all real, such as Romany Marie’s, a cafe in Greenwich Village run by a gypsy fortune teller, the 300 Club, a notorious speakeasy run by an out of work actress called Texas Guinan, and George Balanchine’s School of America Ballet, where Alice Forsyth, another character in the book trains. I think it’s important for the book to feel as real as possible and the only way to do this is to use real locations, drop in the names of real people who would also have visited those places, and bridge the gap seamlessly between fact and fiction.
BR: Why were cosmetics so disapproved and considered ‘scandalous’?
NL: Because they were emblematic of the huge social change taking place around women. The automobile suddenly made it possible for women to go out with men, to move beyond their social circle, to make new friends, to be unchaperoned. The war made it possible for them to find jobs, to earn their own money, to have dreams other than becoming a wife and mother. And jazz music, cosmetics, rolled hose and short skirts became a kind of representation of the new dreams women had, and were thus attacked accordingly.
Many states passed laws declaring just how long a woman’s skirt had to be, magazines protested against the scandalous effects of dancing to jazz music, Macy’s fired a sales clerk for wearing rouge to work in 1917, and the Atlantic Monthly even ran an article in which a man called Mr Grundy exhorted violence and warfare against women who dared challenge convention by wearing rouge and mascara. Societies always push back against change and so cosmetics were attacked because they represented change.
BR: What did you want readers to take away from Her Mother’s Secret?
NL: I want them to escape into another world, to feel as if they really are living in that period between the wars, to consider how lucky we are that we haven’t had to face a devastating war followed by an even more devastating flu, to fall in love, to see how hard it was for women to make it in business, to be thankful for the women who fought for the freedoms we sometimes take for granted, but most of all I want readers to enjoy the story.
BR: Do you have plans for the future – another book, maybe?
NL: I do! I will soon be working on the edit for The Seamstress from Paris, which will be out in March 2018. This book is set in Paris and New York. It’s about the fashion industry; it looks at how, once Paris was occupied by the Germans, nobody could copy Parisian fashions any more, which was how the fashion industry the world over had worked until then. Once again, it features a woman fighting against society to show that fashion doesn’t have to be synonymous with Paris and that if one is talented enough and willing to work hard enough, then it’s possible to build a clothing business based on originality not duplication.
About the author
Natasha Lester worked as a marketing executive for L’Oreal, managing the Maybelline brand, before returning to university to study creative writing. She completed a Master of Creative Arts as well as her first novel, What Is Left Over, After, which won the T.A.G. Hungerford Award for Fiction. Her second novel If I Should Lose You, was published in 2012, followed by A Kiss From Mr Fitzgerald in 2016. In her spare time Natasha loves to teach writing, is a sought after public speaker and can be found playing dress-ups with her three children. She lives in Perth.
Purchase a copy here or watch our Meet the Author interview