Thursday, May 5, 2011

Why I Love Women in a Man’s World by Kate Lord Brown

I’ve always been drawn to women who have made incredible contributions to history, proving their own in a ‘man’s world’ – people like the war photographer Lee Miller, the travel writer Freya Stark, or the polymath and ‘Mama of Dada’ Beatrice Wood. I love smart, strong characters – adventurers who break new ground. As the old saying goes – well behaved women seldom make history.

When I read a small obituary for a woman who had flown Spitfires during WW2, I felt my hair stand on end. I knew this was a story that had to be told. I am married to a pilot, and a couple of our relatives served as Lancaster pilots, but I had no idea that civilian women had flown everything from Spitfires to huge bombers, ferrying planes to Allied fighter stations. I had to know more.

I learnt that these civilians came from every walk of life – pilots joined the Air Transport Auxiliary from 28 nations, and there were debutantes, conjurers, trick fliers, antique dealers and even a stripper. Among the men, there were one-eyed, one-armed veterans flying alongside young fresh cheeked graduates.

There were some incredible characters – women like Audrey Sale Barker, who had her uniform made up on Savile Row with a shocking scarlet lining. She had crash landed in Africa before joining the ATA. She calmly wrote an SOS note in lipstick and handed it to a passing Masai tribesman to take to the nearest Mission. My admiration for these women grew as I delved deeper and deeper into the research, and I wanted to make sure my fictional characters did them justice, reflecting their quiet bravery as well as their flamboyance and youthful beauty – to the fighter pilots they were ‘the beauty chorus’, but they were skilful, highly disciplined pilots too.

Amy Johnson is the only pilot many will know of the 166 women who joined up – she lost her life ferrying an Airspeed Oxford. In ‘The Beauty Chorus’ I’ve woven factual events like Amy’s crash with the fictional story of three girls from very different backgrounds who learn to live and fly together. Every time these women went up, they risked their lives – they flew without radios and without arms. But if you hear the veterans talk now, they will tell you what fun it all was, and as women what a privilege it was to fly these planes. It was the time of their lives.


Kate studied Philosophy at Durham University, and Art History at the Courtauld Institute of Art. She is currently taking a Masters degree. She worked as an art consultant, curating collections for palaces and embassies in Europe and the Middle East, and was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts. She was a finalist in UK ITV’s the People’s Author competition in 2009. Her debut novel ‘The Beauty Chorus’ is published by Atlantic in 2011.

‘The Beauty Chorus’ is published by Corvus,  Atlantic 1/4/11


  1. What an exciting novel! I've added it to my TBR list.

  2. I have wanted this book since I first read about it! I couldn't wait for it to come to the library, so ended up buying it as soon as I could!

    Thanks for posting for us Kate!

  3. Thank you for having me! It was a pleasure to guest at Historical Tapestry, and thank you JTWebster and Marg. Best wishes, Kate

  4. I'm glad to see these women getting some recognition. I only learned about them in the last decade, when I saw an old biopic on Amy Johnson and her husband (who became one of the male ferry pilots, although they were divorced by this time). It was made by the British, during the war and shortly after her death, in 1942, so it really gives a unique perspective of these women and times. For anyone who is interested, it is titled "They Flew Alone" or sometimes known by the U.S. alternate title of "Wings and the Woman". I may just have to have this on hand while reading this book.

    Kate Lord Brown - In your research did you see the 1999 reports by a British pilot that he had shot her down for incorrectly providing the wrong code word for the day? His officer's told him and his crew not to tell anyone. Maybe this is covered in your book so if answering spoils anything, I don't want to ruin it for me or anyone else. Either way I look forward to reading your book.

  5. Hello Furryreaders, and thanks for your interest. Yes, I did come across that piece of information - but it would have been impossible for Amy to provide a codeword because the ATA flew without radios. There are many theories about her death, and The Beauty Chorus looks at a few of them ..!

  6. That gives me another reason to get your book, just to see which theory you go with for Amy's death. Her death remains a mystery just like Glen Miller and Amelia Earhart. Sadly, Amy is the least known of those three, which sadly tells how little is known about these female pilots.

    Have you ever seen that movie I mentioned? I would be curious to know your reaction to how the female pilots were portrayed and the handling Amy's death? Especially given how close this movie was made in relation to the events. I think I will have to check out your blog, too.