Nina Bawden, Author of Carrie’s War
By Elodie Barnes | On October 1, 2023 | Comments (0)
Nina Bawden (January 19, 1925 – August 22, 2012) was a British novelist, children’s book writer, and campaigner. Best known for the children’s novel Carrie’s War, she published twenty-three adult novels and twenty children’s books over some fifty years.
In all of her writing, she made “use of all of my life, all memory, wasting nothing,” and claimed that if her books were read in sequence, they formed a “coded autobiography.”
She was also a fierce campaigner for rail safety after being involved in the Potters Bar train crash of 2002.
Early years in Essex and Oxford
Born Nina Mary Mabey in Goodmayes, Essex, an area near the London Docks in Milford which she later described as “featureless and ugly.” Her father Charles was a merchant navy engineer and was mostly absent. It was a second marriage for him, but the first for her mother, who was a teacher.
She won a scholarship to Ilford County High School, but at age fourteen, when World War II broke out, she was evacuated first to Suffolk and then to South Wales. She only returned to London in 1943.
Despite this interruption to her education, Nina achieved a place at Somerville College, Oxford, to study philosophy, politics, and economics. There, she was a contemporary of Margaret Roberts — later Margaret Thatcher — and, with characteristic audacity and determination, attempted to persuade Margaret to join the Labour Party instead of the Conservatives. One can’t help but wonder how history might have been different had she succeeded!
Two marriages and family life
In 1946, Nina married Henry Bawden, an ex-serviceman and classical scholar many years her senior. His mother had taken her own life before their marriage; the couple managed to buy their first house in London with the money that she left. They had two sons, Nicholas (known as Niki) in 1948, and Robert in 1951.
When she met ex-naval officer Austen Kark, he too was married and had two young daughters. They fell in love after meeting on a bus in 1953, and both swiftly got divorced before marrying in 1954.
The couple had a daughter, Perdita, in 1957, and enjoyed family life in Weybridge, Surrey, where Nina served as a local magistrate as well as writing.
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Writing for adults and children
It was while her children were young that Nina, who had initially wanted to become a foreign correspondent, started writing novels.
Her first book for adults, a crime novel called Who Calls the Tune, was published in 1956 by George Hardinge at Collins, and he continued to publish her adult novels (through his moves to Longman and then Macmillan) until 1987.
Finding a publisher for her children’s books proved more challenging, and it took several tries before her first, The Secret Passage (1963), was picked up by Livia Gollancz.
It was considered unusual at the time because the young protagonists didn’t have a traditional family, nor were the characters “good” as most children in books were: their mother was dead, their father was absent, their aunt was nasty, and they could be jealous, selfish, and bad-tempered.
In the early years of writing, Nina wrote one adult book and one children’s book each year. Later, she began to alternate them.
She became known for her refusal to shy away from the darker undercurrents of life, even in her children’s novels. In In My Own Time: Almost an Autobiography (1994) she wrote that “darkness and chaos threaten us all, lying in wait at the bottom of the garden, lurking outside the safe, lighted room,” and she always acknowledged that belief in her work.
Her children’s novel Carrie’s War (1973) was arguably the best example of her beliefs. It’s the gritty story of two children evacuated from London to Wales during World War II, based on Nina’s real-life experiences. It won the Phoenix Award in 1995 and was adapted for television in 1974 and 2004.
Her adult novels, meanwhile, often centered on breakdowns -—of relationships, families, communication, health — and on the turbulence that may lie beneath the surface of a British middle-class family. Many also had a political undertone. Nina was a committed Labour supporter, and throughout her life challenged conservative social and cultural norms.
While she was sometimes criticized for her plotting — with some critics complaining there was too much and others that there was too little — it was generally agreed that she was a master of description, even in her children’s books. The Peppermint Pig (1975), contains the following wonderful line:
“Poll was the naughtiest one of the family, and the dreadful thing happened on one of her naughty days: a dark day of thick, mustardy fog that had specks of grit in it she could taste on her tongue.”
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Family life and a tragedy
By the late 1960s, Kark was rising up the ranks at the BBC (he would eventually become head of the BBC World Service) and the family moved to Islington in 1979.
The family traveled a lot, and Nina often set her novels in the countries they visited: for example, Kenya (Under the Skin, 1964), Morocco (A Woman of My Age, 1967), and Turkey (George Beneath a Paper Moon, 1974). They also enjoyed socializing and parties both in London and at their second home in Nafplio, Greece.
In his teens, her son Niki became addicted to drugs. He was also diagnosed with schizophrenia and, after a period of imprisonment for drug offenses, was incarcerated in a mental hospital. The story ended in tragedy when Niki drowned himself in the Thames in 1981 at the age of thirty-three. The family didn’t find out for certain that it was he who had died until months later.
Later, Nina would write in her memoir, “If my son wanted to leave then I should have left too. This is what it feels like when pieces of you fall away.” Her novel, Circle of Deceit (1987), was based largely on Niki’s story.
“When bad things happen,” Nina said, “you absorb them into yourself and make use of them in novels.” The novel featured a young man who was schizophrenic, although Nina couldn’t bring herself to kill the character as Niki had done to himself in real life.
Circle of Deceit was shortlisted for the Booker Prize and was successfully adapted for television. It was not the only novel to be inspired by Niki: her later novel Birds on the Trees (1970) was about a young man who becomes addicted to drugs and has a subsequent breakdown, and the effect this has on his family. In 2010 it was shortlisted for the Lost Man Booker Prize.
The Potters Bar train crash
On 10th May 2002, Nina and her husband boarded a high-speed train from London to Cambridge to attend a party. It derailed at almost one hundred miles per hour at Potters Bar in Hertfordshire, killing seven people, including Kark, who died instantly, and injuring several more. It was the worst train disaster in British history.
Nina, then age seventy-seven, was cut from the wreckage with a broken ankle, arm, leg, shoulder, collarbone, and several ribs. Family and friends feared she might not recover. After multiple surgeries, she defied the doctors’ expectations and was able to stand unaided. She taught herself to walk again, and eventually returned home to Islington.
Although she suffered from PTSD after the crash, Nina said, “I refuse to feel badly done by in life … I could have been in a concentration camp or been born a paraplegic. My family have been so loving and supportive it is my duty to recover and get on with things for them.”
She campaigned tirelessly for a full investigation into the accident, and when the government refused to allow a public inquiry, she was so incensed that she cut up her Labour Party membership card. When survivors of the crash were refused legal aid, she stepped in and took the rail companies to court personally. In 2011 the company that operated that section of the rail track was fined £3 million for safety violations.
The disaster was commemorated in The Permanent Way (2003), a play by David Hare which featured a character based on Nina Bowden.
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Nina Bawden continued to write through her recovery and subsequent campaigning, and in 2005 published a memoir, Dear Austen. It was structured as a series of letters addressed to her late husband, and was extraordinary in its courage, anger, and vulnerability. In one letter, Nina wrote,
“When we bought tickets for this railway journey we had expected a safe arrival, not an earthquake smashing lives into pieces … I dislike the word ‘victim.’ I dislike being told that I ‘lost’ my husband — as if I had idly abandoned you by the side of the railway track like a pair of unwanted old shoes. You were killed. I didn’t lose you. And I am not a victim, I am an angry survivor.”
Nina was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 1987 and the Lost Man Booker Prize in 2010. In the same year, she was awarded a PEN Award for Lifetime Services to Literature.
The crash had taken its toll, and in her last years, she was largely dependent on her daughter Perdita for helping her out. Nina never recovered after Perdita died from an aggressive form of cancer in 2012, and died just a few months after her daughter did that same year.
A plaque commemorating Nina Bawden’s life as a writer and campaigner was unveiled at her home in Islington in September 2015. Many of her books have been reissued by Virago Modern Classics.
Contributed by Elodie Barnes. Elodie is a writer and editor with a serious case of wanderlust. Her short fiction has been widely published online and is included in the Best Small Fictions 2022 Anthology published by Sonder Press. She is Books & Creative Writing Editor at Lucy Writers Platform, she is also co-facilitating What the Water Gave Us, an Arts Council England-funded anthology of emerging women writers from migrant backgrounds. She is currently working on a collection of short stories, and when not writing can usually be found planning the next trip abroad, or daydreaming her way back to 1920s Paris. Find her online at Elodie Rose Barnes.
More about Nina Bawden
Following is but a small sampling of Nina Bawden’s major works. Here is a complete bibliography, though it doesn’t distinguish between her works for adults and children, nor between fiction and nonfiction.
Books for children
- Carrie’s War (1973)
- Henry (1988)
- Keeping Henry (1988)
- The Peppermint Pig (1975)
- The Secret Passage (1963)
- The Witch’s Daughter (1966)
Selected novels for adults
- Who Calls the Tune (1956)
- Devil by the Sea (1957)
- Under the Skin (1964)
- A Woman of My Age (1967)
- The Birds on the Trees (1970)
- George Beneath a Paper Moon (1974)
- Afternoon of a Good Woman (1976)
- Circle of Deceit (1987)
Biography and letters
- In My Own Time: Almost an Autobiography (1994)
- Dear Austen (2005)