Brighton author Joanna Rees discovers her inner flapper girl

Brighton author Joanna Rees channels her inner flapper girl with the perfect antidote to pandemic blues – a fun, escapist 1920s-set book about a lingerie designer and her dancer friend. The Hidden Wife comes out on March 18, complete with Paris, wild parties and a wonderfully evil sister-in-law character.

Joanna Rees in the Jenny Sacerdote dress
Joanna Rees in the Jenny Sacerdote dress

The book is the second in a trilogy which began last year with The Runaway Daughter, the first novel in A Stitch in Time (Pan Macmillan) – a sweeping historical series. Book one was set in London; part three, which will be set in LA and New York, will be published in summer 2022. Together the three books describe the creation and the establishment of an underwear empire.

Book one begins in 1926. Anna Darton is on the run from what she believes is a terrible crime she was forced into committing. Alone and scared in London, salvation comes in the form of Nancy, a sassy American dancer at the notorious nightclub, the Zip.

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Re-inventing herself as Vita Casey, Anna becomes part of the line-up and is thrown into a hedonistic world of dancing, parties, flapper girls and fashion. Book two now moves the story to Paris Having fled London and been on the run around Europe, Vita has established a new life for herself, keeping a low profile as a dresser at a cabaret hall where Nancy is part of the risqué dance troupe. It’s a vibrant world of wild parties, drugs and jazz music.

But despite the fun, hedonistic lifestyle they lead, Vita longs for a proper career and to re-kindle her dream of designing lingerie. When an opportunity to work for famous couturier Jenny Sacerdote presents itself, Vita grabs it with both hands and is soon exposed to an altogether different side of Paris society. Before long, romance blossoms in the unlikeliest of places.

However, left to her own devices, Nancy spirals into danger and drug abuse – and Vita has to save her friend. But can Vita really trust the people who want to help her? Especially when there are those back in England who wish to see her ruined and forced to pay for the past she ran away from …

By the end of book two she will be fleeing to the States… for all the adventures that await her in the final book of the three: “I have just finished writing book three,” Joanna says, “and I am just absolutely loving it. I have just loved these characters throughout lockdown. It has just been so much fun to write about the 1920s, the Folies Bergeres, 1928, just exploring all the art and culture. It’s really a book about friendship, and I have got Vita and Nancy high-kicking through Paris which has been a total joy to write about, and then they are in New York and LA. I have touched on Hollywood, but there is just so much more to write about, the 1930s and the war coming. There is lots more juice.

“When I started writing the trilogy, I was worried that I would not have enough material. It was quite a concern. I was worried I would run out of stuff by book three, but absolutely not. Because you have got the depth of the characters, there is just so much more you can do. It is lovely starting writing a book and you already know the characters. I have never done that before, but this is just like ‘Oh, here they are!’ and then another character walks in. Lots of other people appear. It is just so much fun.”

Part of the fun of book two was coming across the designer Jenny Sacerdote who designed couture dresses for the cream of society from her offices on the Champs Elysees. The brand disappeared after the war, but Joanna investigated further and discovered that the brand has recently been revived. As research for the book, she went to Paris to meet the chief designer. Whilst there, she bought a dress, based on one of Jenny’s original designs. It now features in the book: “Now I’ve got the dress, I had to learn the Charleston to dance in it!”