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Book Club Kits: Maisie Dobbs

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Book Summary

Maisie entered domestic service in 1910 at the age of thirteen, to work as a maid at the Belgravia mansion of Lady Rowan Compton. When her remarkable intelligence and innate love of learning are discovered by her employer, Maisie becomes the pupil of Maurice Blanche, a learned friend of the Comptons who is often retained by Europe's elite, and the police, to conduct discreet investigations. Eventually, Maisie enters Girton College at Cambridge University, but the escalation of World War I intervenes to change her plans. She serves as a nurse at the front and falls in love with a handsome young doctor, only to lose him. In 1929, following an apprenticeship assisting Blanche in his work, Maisie hangs out her shingle: M. DOBBS, TRADE AND PERSONAL INVESTIGATIONS. She soon becomes enmeshed in a mystery surrounding The Retreat, a reclusive community of veterans wounded in body and spirit. At first, Maisie only suspects foul play, but she must act quickly when Lady Rowan's son decides to sign away his fortune and take refuge at The Retreat. A coincidence? Maisie has learned that coincidences can lead to the truth, and hurriedly investigates The Retreat. She uncovers a disturbing mystery at its core which in an astonishing dénouement, gives Maisie the courage to confront the ghost that has haunted her for over ten years.

Read an excerpt.

Discussion Questions

  • How does Maisie's brief exchange with the newspaper vendor at the beginning of the novel (pp. 3-4) help to establish her character? Why is her combination of "bearing" and her "familiar way" of speaking such a surprise to Jack? How does this combination of qualities fit in with Maisie's desire for an office that is "something in the middle, something for everyone, something central, but then again not in the thick of things"?
  • Maisie initially has a hard time deciding what trade description to put on her nameplate (p. 5). At the end of the novel, she has firmly decided upon "M. Dobbs, Psychologist and Investigator." In what other ways, during the course of the story, does Maisie arrive at a clearer idea of who she is?
  • Enid, Maisie's roommate at Lord Compton's mansion, is vividly contrasted with Maisie. What implicit comparisons are made between the two young women? Despite her lack of formal education, does Enid possess a kind of wisdom that Maisie is slower to acquire? Does Enid's juxtaposition with Maisie help us to understand Maisie better?
  • When he learns that his wife is still mourning the early death of a former love who was horribly wounded in World War I, Christopher Davenham responds, "[O]ne just has to get on with it. After all, you can't just give in, can you?" (p. 52). Similarly, Mrs. Crawford criticizes James for being different from other ex-soldiers who have "got on with it" (p. 207). You may have noticed that the phrase "Get on with it" becomes an important motif late in the novel (cf. pp. 283 and 292). If getting on with it is such sensible advice, why is it so hard to follow?
  • Throughout most of the novel, the facial disfigurement of the veterans who join the colony at the Retreat generates sympathy for them. However, at a climactic moment in the story, their wounds are used to make them appear monstrous and inhuman: "With their damaged faces, once so very dear to a mother, father, or sweetheart, they were now reduced to gargoyles by a war that, for them, had never ended" (p. 262). In the story, and elsewhere, for that matter, can sympathy and repulsion exist comfortably side by side, or must one eventually triumph?
  • How does the young Maisie of the flashback chapters differ from the mature Maisie?
  • What obstacles does Maisie have to surmount, both personally and professionally, because she is a woman? How does her feminine identity influence her professional demeanor and investigative style? How do the obstacles of gender in the novel contrast with the obstacles of class?
  • Maisie finds herself situated between two powerful father figures: Frankie, her natural father; and Maurice, her intellectual "father." Both of these men represent different parts of Maisie's life and character though they have very little in common. How successful is Maisie in balancing their influences?
  • Despite the sinister nature of the Retreat, Billy Beale initially finds the compound somewhat attractive and feels respect for Adam Jenkins. Why?
  • Is Maisie as skilled at resolving her own inner conflicts as she is at dealing with those of others? Are there any relationships in particular that you think she mismanages? Why?
  • Imagine Maisie Dobbs as the basis for a screenplay. Choose a scene and discuss how you, as the director, would want to film it.
  • What is your response to the ending of the novel, particularly the last meeting between Simon and Maisie? Is Maisie more focused on her suffering or Simon's? Is her focus where it ought to be? Does the scene resolve the tensions of the story or heighten them?

About the Author

Jacqueline Winspear was born and raised in the county of Kent, England. Following higher education at the University of London’s Institute of Education, Jacqueline worked in both general and academic publishing, in higher education and in marketing communications in the UK.

She emigrated to the United States in 1990, and while working in business and as a personal / professional coach, Jacqueline embarked upon a life-long dream to be a writer.

A regular contributor to journals covering international education, Jacqueline has published articles in women's magazines and has also recorded her essays for KQED radio in San Francisco. She currently divides her time between Ojai and the San Francisco Bay Area. Jacqueline is also a regular visitor to the United Kingdom and Europe.

Interview with the Author


Who is Maisie and what inspired her?

I had not planned to write fiction. Even though one of my writing mentors had encouraged me to give it serious thought – at that point my passion was the personal essay. However, I was driving to work one morning, crawling along in heavy traffic, then stuck at a stop light, when I did what many people do in those conditions – I started daydreaming. Suddenly, in my mind’s eye, I saw a woman – dressed in the fashion of the late 1920’s – on the old wooden escalator at Warren Street station in London. She left the station, walked down Warren Street and stopped outside one of the houses, whereupon she took out an envelope with a set of keys. The scene continued, even as I heard the car horn from the driver behind me (the light had changed). I couldn’t wait to get home that evening to write what I had seen that morning, which was essentially the first chapter of Maisie Dobbs, the first novel in the series. The thing was, that I knew so much about the character of Maisie before I had even reached work that day. She was born in Lambeth, a very poor area of south-east London, at the tail end of the 1800’s. Her rise from the position of a maid working in service is due to her intelligence, intellect, and in no small part to her other intuitive gifts – gifts that are recognized by Dr. Maurice Blanche, a friend of her employer. She wins a place to study at Girton College, Cambridge, but cuts her education short in 1915 when she enlists for nursing service. After the war, she continues her education, then works for Blanche as his assistant. Blanche’s history is complex – following medical training he also worked in “legal medicine” (forensics) and is a psychologist and, as readers come to know, also something of a philosopher. We first meet Maisie following his retirement, when she is setting up in business on her own.


Why did you choose the time following World War I for your novels? Do you have a particular interest in that time period?

My grandfather was severely wounded and shell-shocked at The Battle of the Somme in 1916. Even as a young child, I understood the extent of his suffering. When I asked questions about his profound limp and wheezy lungs, my mother would tell me that “Grandad was wounded in the Great War.” It seemed such a terrible thing to me, most probably due to the gravity with which the words “Great War” were spoken. In fact, I can remember the very first time I asked questions about my grandfather’s health. I think I was about five at the time. My grandparents came to stay once or twice a year, coming down on the steam train from London for a week or two at a time. During one of those early visits, I heard my grandfather get up very early. I waited for him to go downstairs, then clambered out of bed and followed him down. I sat on the stairs and peeked through the wooden rail. I saw him soaking his feet and calves, drying them and massaging his legs up and down. Then I saw my grandfather begin to remove something from his leg, then another, and another. Later, I asked what Granddad was doing and my mother explained to me – as best she could to a child – that he was removing shrapnel from his legs, shrapnel embedded when he went “over the top” during the Battle of the Somme. Of course, you can imagine the “what” and “why” questions that followed, however, I was left with an overriding image – the picture of darkness, of guns and of my grandfather wounded on the ground. I later learned that throughout my father’s childhood, my grandfather was periodically taken away by ambulance for a month or so, perhaps to a soldiers convalescent home by the sea, so that he could breathe in fresh air to help his gas-damaged lungs. My grandfather died when he was 77, and to the day he died he was still removing shrapnel from his wounds of over fifty years before.

As I grew up my curiosity about the “war to end all wars” deepened, so that I always seemed to be reading something about the war. However, my interest was not in the politics of the time so much as rooted in the experiences of ordinary men and women, boys and girls, not only on the battlefield, but on the home front. And though I never set out to write a “war” novel, it came as no surprise that this part of history formed the backdrop of Maisie Dobbs and other books in the series.

For me, the war and its aftermath provide fertile ground for a mystery, offering a literary vehicle for exploring the time. Such great social upheaval allows for the strange and unusual to emerge and a time of intense emotions can, to the writer of fiction, provide ample fodder for a compelling story, especially one concerning criminal acts and issues of guilt and innocence. After all, a generation is said to have lost its innocence in The Great War.


What research have you done in order to reconstruct this time so convincingly?

My research is ongoing. Books and records from and about the period are the mainstay of my personal library. I also read memoirs, fiction from the period, mainly to enhance my sense of language, of societal mores, etc. In addition, I do a considerable amount of primary research, which includes, for example, consulting the archives at the Imperial War Museum in London, walking the streets where I am setting scenes and then comparing what I can see and feel today with old photos and accounts of life at the time. Last year I went to France and Belgium as part of my research for Pardonable Lies. It was a profound experience, because I walked sections of the battlefields of the Somme and Ypres, even found live ammunition from the war some 90 years ago (there’s an essay about that trip on my website). What I constantly had to do was to imagine how that place might have looked twelve years after the war, in 1930, when Maisie has to return to France as part of her investigation into the death of a wartime aviator.


How is Maisie Dobbs an example of how women lived during that time and what they were able to accomplish?

One of the things I wanted to do in creating the character of Maisie Dobbs was to honor the spirit of that generation of women in Britain. They were the first generation of women in modern times to go into war related work, and they did so in the hundreds of thousands. Some 60,000 women went directly into war-related roles, as nurses, ambulance drivers, code-breakers, munitions workers, and in military support roles. Just shy of another 500,000 women assumed men’s jobs so that men could be released to the battlefield. There was barely a field of endeavor untouched by a woman’s hand – they built ships, built aircraft, drove trains and buses, worked the land, the first women police auxiliaries pounded the London streets, women worked in construction and in brewing – they did everything. But the sad thing is that they were a generation for whom life would never be as they might have expected it to be when they were girls in the years before the war. The 1921 census revealed that there were two million “surplus” women in Britain. Approximately 750,000 men of marriageable age were killed in the war, and about 1,350,000 came home seriously wounded and shell-shocked. Of course, those “surplus” women became the subject of jokes and speculation, and were often seen as something to be feared (heaven knows what they might get up to!). The truth is that they were an extraordinary generation. Plunged into war, having lost sweethearts and young husbands, brothers and fathers, women now had to be financially independent, they had to build community and friendships, and they had to prepare for growing old alone. The accomplishments and resolve of that generation is inspiring – for example, it was the great age of women novelists in Britain. infancy in the early years of the last century, and I was informed by a psychologist once that in her work she uses the same “mirroring” technique as Maisie.

In the years of the Great War and the post-war period, there were thousands of people in Britain who believed in the power of psychics and mediums. And 1917 was the year in which more ouija boards were sold in Britain than at any other time – use of the ouija board is now illegal there. So many men died so suddenly in the Great War, that there was a collective yearning for contact. Imagine this – a whole village of men could be lost in minutes as they went “over the top” into battle. The occult offered the possibility of that final communication with a loved one, a chance to say, “Farewell” or “I love you” that was not offered in any other quarter. There were so many charlatans who took advantage of the bereaved, as well as those who wanted to do good but had no more ability to speak to the dead than the next person. I should add, though, that the term ‘occult’ is used here in accordance with a more universal meaning: the deeper spiritual reality that cannot be understood using pure reason or material science. The modern interpretations tend towards the derogatory and point to an evil connotation.


When you begin writing your novels, do you have the details of who did what, where, when and why mapped out specifically or do they develop as you write?

I have a basic idea of the who, the what and the where – a map of where I am going. The wonderful thing about a map is that it allows you to be more of an adventurer, because if you lose your way, you have something to come back to. Though I have key markers in the plot mapped out, I am also able to go off down another road if I am led there by curiosity, a dream or just my fingers on the keyboard.