I first encountered Judithe Little when her then publicist, Caitlin Hamilton Summie, pitched Judith’s first novel to me for a New Books in Historical Fiction interview. That podcast appeared in 2017 as part of a one-time experiment in talking with two authors, back to back, about books that happened to cover related topics. (I didn’t repeat the experiment because it turned out that the computers weren’t good at featuring two authors and two novels in one post.) You can still hear our conversation for free on the New Books Network.
Her second novel, The Chanel Sisters, reached me in a similar way, but it covers a very different subject: the life of the famous fashion designer Coco Chanel. Read on to find out more about both books.
Your first novel, Wickwythe Hall, came out in 2017 and addressed a single crucial decision made by the British government in 1940. What led you to move from that very military/political arena to the early years of Coco Chanel’s life?
Both book inspirations came while I was reading Axel Madsen’s biography Chanel: A Woman of Her Own. It was the first Chanel biography I’d read, and in it I learned about Coco’s early life as well as the confrontation between the French and British navies in World War II. I wrote Wickwythe Hall first because I found it so astonishing that most people didn’t know about that tragedy (including myself), but there was always a placeholder in my mind for the early part of Coco’s life that ends just after World War I in 1921. Both novels are, at heart, about relationships and how war can irrevocably upend them.
The novel is called The Chanel Sisters, and in fact the main narrator is Antoinette (Ninette), not Gabrielle, the future Coco. What does Ninette’s perspective offer you as a writer that Coco’s would not?
Coco never told the truth about her convent upbringing and the fact that her father abandoned her. Ninette knew exactly what Coco worked so hard to hide because she experienced it too. As a reliable narrator, Ninette offers a more intimate, honest side to Coco than Coco herself would ever be willing to reveal. Also, as I researched Ninette’s story, I realized she played a more important role in the founding of the Chanel empire than previously known. I thought it was time she had her own voice.
There is also a third sister, Julia-Berthe. Where does she fit into the story?
All of the sisters, once released from the clutches of the nuns, choose different paths out in the world. What motivates them in part is to fill the void left by their father’s betrayal. The longing for love is heightened in the sisters because they’ve spent their entire lives feeling unloved. Julia-Berthe, the oldest sister, seeks out physical love. She has no grand schemes to break out of poverty like the other two and is more willing to accept her place in the world. Like her parents and grandparents, she tries to squeeze out a living selling used items in outdoor markets. She is who Antoinette and Coco might have been if they hadn’t pursued their dreams and broken the cycle of poverty they came from. It’s ironic that for all that the name “Chanel” stands for today, it comes from a family of vagabond peddlers living hand to mouth.
Like many people, I would guess, I have been aware of Coco Chanel throughout my life without really knowing much about her beyond Chanel no. 5 and the Little Black Dress. How would you summarize her, as a character? What’s most important for us to know about her?
Coco was a very complex person, but one quality that defined her was a driving need for freedom. Freedom from poverty, from the convent, from the rules of society in general, and from the rules of society imposed on women. Because of her quest for freedom, she revolutionized fashion and along with it the way women participate in the world. She gave women clothing they could actually move in. But she didn’t do it intentionally. She didn’t start out wanting to be a fashion designer at all. She made hats and clothing for herself first because she didn’t like the fussy, overwrought choices of the time and also couldn’t afford them. Her pared-down style caught on as did her philosophy that women should dress to live, not live to dress.
The love of Ninette’s life is a man she calls Lucho. Tell us a bit about him and how their romance intersects with your novel’s main theme: the relationship among these three sisters.
Those were the days when who you married defined you in the eyes of society. Of the sisters, Ninette is the one who wants her existence acknowledged by society as it never was by her father. She hopes against all odds to find love and acceptance all wrapped up in a nice package. Then life presents her with Lucho, who can give her the former but not the latter. He’s an Argentinian/English horse breeder who comes to France to promote his Criollo ponies to European polo players. When World War I breaks out, he provides his horses to the French army to help fight the Germans. Coco, who’s more pragmatic than Ninette, doesn’t care about propriety. She helps Ninette understand she’s playing a fool’s game, trying to protect a “reputation” she never really had because of her low birth.
Can you tell us anything about the novel that you’re now working on, referenced in your bio, below?
The novel I’m working on now takes place in Paris in the 1920s and 1930s and is told from the point of view of Coco Chanel’s best friend for over thirty years, a fascinating woman who was actually more famous in Paris at the time than Coco.
Thank you so much for answering my questions!
Judithe Little is the author of two novels, The Chanel Sisters and Wickwythe Hall, award-winning historical fiction set during World War II. She grew up in Virginia and earned a Bachelor of Arts in Foreign Affairs from the University of Virginia. After studying at the Institute of European Studies and the Institut Catholique in Paris, France, and interning at the US Department of State, she earned a law degree from the University of Virginia School of Law, where she was on the Editorial Board of the Journal of International Law and a Dillard Fellow. She lives in Houston, Texas, with her husband and children, where she is working on her third novel. Find out more about her and her books at http://www.judithelittle.com.
If you’re looking for the usual annual resolutions, I ran the pared-down version in last week’s post, “Looking Back—and Forward.” And as always, I wish everyone a splendid new year, with love and success and happiness for you and those you love!