Illustration by Karl James Mountford, from The Midnight Peacock
One of the first things most of us think of when we think of the Edwardians is the grand country house. It appears everywhere from Downton Abbey to The Go-Between, not to mention in dozens of mysteries, romances and ghost stories. The period from 1861 – 1914 is generally considered to have been the ‘golden age’ of the English country house – and the country house party in particular was a mainstay of upper-class Edwardian social life.
Entertaining was a mark of status for well-off Edwardians. For the Edwardian gentry, their country estate was a place to display their wealth, power and refined taste via their art collections and elegant furniture, their sumptuous grounds, their army of servants, and the lavish food and drink at their table. Hosting a country house party would allow them to showcase all this to their peers.
Sometimes lasting weeks at a time, but more often from Saturday until Monday (literally referred to as ‘Saturday-to-Monday’ – as we’ve learned from the Countess of Grantham, the word ‘weekend’ was considered rather vulgar) country house parties most often took place during August and September.
Up to 20 or 30 people would typically be invited, each of whom might bring their own servants with them (perhaps a maid or a valet, and possibly a chauffeur) as well as a large quantity of luggage. An Edwardian lady would not want to wear the same outfit twice during her stay, and with different clothes typically expected at breakfast, lunch, tea and dinner, a three-day visit could require as many as fifteen different ensembles!
Gentlemen of the party would spend their days shooting, while the ladies wrote letters, read, strolled in the gardens or perhaps took part in outdoor activities like riding, croquet or lawn tennis.
Food was of course a most important aspect of any Edwardian house party! The day would begin with a vast breakfast spread, featuring fruit, eggs, toast, muffins, rolls, bacon, ham, kidneys, pies, haddock, kedgeree, tea, coffee, cocoa and more – though the ladies of the party might well take their breakfast in bed. As well as a generous luncheon, there would be afternoon tea in the drawing room, and in the evening the party would gather for a sumptuous dinner.
After dinner the ladies would typically retire to the drawing room, leaving the gentlemen to enjoy their port and cigars before rejoining the ladies for an evening of music, dancing or card games like bridge or baccarat (the latter was actually illegal at the time, but like Leo’s brother Vincent in The Midnight Peacock, many people in Edwardian high society enjoyed scandalous gambling!)
As well as being an opportunity for socialising, country house parties could offer a chance for matches to be made. Young ladies who had not found a husband during the Season might have the opportunity to meet and get to know a suitable young man, often of their parents’ choosing. (That’s exactly what Veronica Whitley’s parents have in mind in The Midnight Peacock – but things don’t quite go to plan…)
In the world of the Sinclair’s Mysteries, we’ve already had a peep inside a grand Edwardian country house in The Painted Dragon – Leo’s family home, Winter Hall. In the final book, The Midnight Peacock, I wanted to take us back to Winter Hall, and allow Sophie and Lil to experience the world of a high society Edwardian house party, with all its complex rules and traditions. Here, it’s a Christmas house party, complete with ice-skating, snowy walks, and a Christmas party for the children of the estate. But amongst all the festivities, there’s a mystery afoot – and Sophie and Lil soon discover that Winter Hall is hiding a sinister and spooky secret…
Winter Magic – the anthology of frosty magical tales curated by Abi Elphinstone – is out in paperback today, with a gorgeous new cover by illustrator Melissa Castrillon
It’s lovely to see the book out in paperback just in time for enjoying on wintery afternoons – and of course, to go in lots of Christmas stockings!
The new cover is beautiful and it’s fun spotting all the details from the various stories in Melissa’s gorgeous illustration – including the little Nutcracker from my story Casse-Noisette set in 1890s St Petersburg told from the point of view of a young dancer in the very first production of ‘The Nutcracker’.
In the Sinclair’s Mysteries I’ve enjoyed exploring what life was like in the Edwardian era for children and teenagers from different backgrounds. Unless they were from a wealthy family, most children in the 1900s would leave school when they were 13 or 14 years old, and would be expected to go out and work for a living. Many would take on apprenticeships; they might find work in a shop, like Sophie in The Clockwork Sparrow; or they might become a clerk, as Billy does in The Jewelled Moth. The less fortunate might end up working long hours in a factory, like the children Billy and Joe meet in The Midnight Peacock; or some, like Joe in The Clockwork Sparrow, might struggle to find work at all.
But one of the most common routes into employment at the time was to ‘go into service’ – in other words, to become a domestic servant. In 1911, 800,000 families in Britain employed their own domestic staff. For many of these, this would be a single servant (sometimes called ‘a maid of all work’) – often a girl in her early teens who dealt with all the domestic work single-handed. In the days before the labour-saving devices we take for granted today (washing machines, vacuum cleaners, dishwashers… the list is endless) this often meant an incredible amount of work.
For very wealthy families living in grand houses, however, it was usual to employ a large staff, all of whom would live on the premises in the ‘servants’ quarters’. This could include kitchenmaids, a cook, housemaids, footmen, nursemaids to look after the children, lady’s maids, valets, chauffeurs, and of course the all-important butler and housekeeper – the most senior and important members of staff, who were responsible for the other servants. In very large houses the staff might also include more obscure positions such as: the ‘odd man’, who was responsible for tasks like carrying luggage; the ‘still room maids’ who worked in the still room making jam, preserves and soap or brewing beer; the ‘lamp-and-candle boy’ whose specific responsibility was filling lamps and tending to candles (at Longleat in 1915, where there was no electric light, a lamp boy had to collect, clean, trim and fill 400 lamps a day) or even the ‘gong man’ whose main duty was ringing the gong three times a day to signal mealtimes!
A grand country house like Winter Hall could have a huge number of servants: at Welbeck Abbey in Nottinghamshire, the Duke of Portland maintained an entourage of 90 indoor servants. Even when there were a smaller number of staff, guests arriving for a country house party might well bring their own servants with them, such as a lady’s maid, valet or chauffeur. The Duke of Devonshire found 200 servants the bare minimum to look after a house party of 50.
It sounds extraordinary now, but the Edwardian upper classes were so used to being looked after by their servants that they were sometimes incapable of doing quite simple tasks for themselves. They might ring the bell for a footman to do something as straightforward as poking a fire. Famously Lord Curzon was so baffled by the challenge of opening a window in the bedroom of the country house in which he was staying (no servants being available late at night) that he smashed the glass!
Traditionally servants at a big house would start young, at about 13 years old. Life in a country house could be tough: these young servants worked long hours doing hard physical work, and (like Sarah the scullery maid in in The Midnight Peacock) they would often feel homesick at first, living away from family and friends. But being in service was considered a good, secure job, offering the opportunity to climb the ladder. Starting out as a footman or housemaid, a young servant might aspire to one day achieve a prestigious position as a butler or housekeeper, where they would be afforded special privileges such as having their own private sitting-rooms, and might even be waited on themselves by the more junior servants.
In The Midnight Peacock we meet Tilly, a young under-housemaid at grand country house Winter Hall, (which readers of The Painted Dragon may remember is Leo Fitzgerald’s family home). Tilly has grown up ‘below stairs’ at Winter Hall, and the servants’ quarters are her home. Cook, who has brought her up, hopes that she will one day rise to the important position of lady’s maid – but Tilly herself has very different dreams. In this way, Tilly anticipates the changes that were already on the horizon at the end of the Edwardian era. The First World War would bring about disruption to traditions, and the old ‘upstairs, downstairs’ world would soon be gone for good…
To mark the publication of The Midnight Peacock, the final book in the Sinclair’s Mysteries series this week, I thought it would be fun to share some of my research process for the books. I love research and it’s something that I’m often asked about when I’m out and about at events and talking to readers.
Here are seven ways that I’ve approached researching the series and imagining myself back into Edwardian London:
1) Collecting visual inspiration
Visual inspiration is really important to me: I love collecting images and using them as a spring-board for writing. From the very beginning I started gathering together images that would help me imagine what 1900s London and the world of an Edwardian department store would look like. They included: Edwardian photographs that reminded me of my characters; images of 1900s maps, newspapers, bus-tickets and advertisements; photographs of London shops and street scenes; 1900s art, design and illustration; and of course lots of pictures of Edwardian fashion – from gowns to shoes to the all-important hats. Although many of the images were from the 1900s, I also gathered more contemporary images that had an Edwardian vibe or which evoked elements of the series to me.
Pinterest was an incredibly useful tool here: I made an ‘Edwardiana’ board where I could collect images I found online, as well as a secret Pinterest board for each book, which I later shared with my editor and designer. As well as providing a useful reference point, the material I collected really helped me to develop an aesthetic and atmosphere for each book . I’ve now made all the boards public – you can see them here. It’s interesting looking back to see how different each board is – from the light, frothy brightness of Clockwork Sparrow to the darker, autumnal feel of Painted Dragon right through to the rich and sumptuous jewel tones of Midnight Peacock.
Making a digital collection of images like this is super quick and easy, but if you prefer to take a more analogue approach, I also love sticking up postcards and other relevant images around my desk, or on a pin-board. For the Sinclair’s Mysteries I also made a scrapbook where I could collect together hard-copy images that had inspired me – you can read more about it and see some pictures over on the Egmont blog.
2) Reading back in time
At the very beginning of the writing process, I tried to read as much as I could that I had been written during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, starting with children’s books by the likes of Frances Hodgson Burnett and E Nesbit. However I didn’t stop with children’s fiction – I read all kinds of other books as well, casting my net as widely as possible. These included: Edwardian detective and spy novels; classics by authors like E M Forster; contemporary works of non-fiction like Jack London’s The People of the Abyss (which was particularly helpful for researching the East End); memoirs (I loved Dodie Smith’s Look Back With Love, and semi-autobiographical novels like The Vicarage Family by Noel Streatfeild and The Edwardians by Vita Sackville West); and even etiquette guides and travel guides. I found this breadth of reading really helped immerse me in the world of the Edwardians and often sparked off unexpected ideas for the stories.
I’ve used the British Library a huge amount for my research: one of the things I loved best about working there is that I was able to look at original copies of Edwardian books and periodicals, which was invaluable. For the Sinclair’s Mysteries, I looked at material such as an original 1900s Baedeker’s Guide to London, as well as magazines like Boy’s Own and Boys of England (which inspired the fictional magazine Boys of Empire which Billy reads). There’s something really quite magical about being able to look at a book that’s over 100 years old!
3) Exploring contemporary books
As well as reading lots of late Victorian and Edwardian material, I also sought out contemporary books set in or around the Edwardian period. Two I read very early on were Shopping, Seduction and Mr Selfridge by Lindy Woodhead (a biography of Harry Gordon Selfridge, the founder of Selfridges) and The Children’s Book by A S Byatt – two extremely different books that both had an important part to play in shaping the series.
Later I sought out more specific books to help me research particular elements of Edwardian society. For the artistic community of The Painted Dragon, for example, I read A Crisis of Brilliance by David Haycock, Among the Bohemians by Virginia Nicholson, and Life Class by Pat Barker. When I’m researching a specific topic, I particularly look for non-fiction titles which have lots of rich detail and personal anecdotes – though once again I do like to look at a wide variety of different reading matter. For me, illustrated children’s books, novels or books of photography or fashion history can be just as helpful as traditional history or biography. Even a sticker book – like this lovely Edwardian one from Usborne – might have a part to play in your research!
4) Visiting museums and galleries
I love pottering around museums and galleries and this element of the research process was a real joy for me. The Museum of London was a great starting point for the Sinclair’s Mysteries: their collection includes items like an Edwardian motor-taxi, the original 1920s lift doors from Selfridges, a variety of Suffragette memorabilia, and Edwardian clothing. I also love their Victorian shopping street which is a great example of what London shopping was like before the Edwardian department store came along!
Lots more inspiration was found at the V&A, the British Museum, the Museum of London Docklands (especially helpful for The Jewelled Moth), the National Gallery, Tate Britain, the National Portrait Gallery, the London Transport Museum and the Royal Academy. The Wallace Collection was the perfect setting to picture Mr Lyle in The Painted Dragon (you can even see the painting ‘The Swing’ by Fragonard that Lil recreates in the book). An impromptu visit to Two Temple Place was really helpful in bringing to life the interior of Lord Beaucastle’s mansion in The Jewelled Moth.
At The Wallace Collection
I’d hugely recommend a museum or art gallery visit as a source of inspiration, especially when you’re feeling short on ideas. There’s something very powerful about seeing artworks or objects from the past ‘in the flesh’ – their colours, textures and physical qualities. A painting, a photograph or an object can be a great starting point for writing.
I’ve also found museum and gallery shops useful places to find interesting or unusual non-fiction books, postcards and historical maps – early on in writing The Clockwork Sparrow I bought a copy of a 1900s map of London from the Museum of London shop which has been invaluable in helping me get a sense of Sophie & Lil’s London.
5) Film and TV
Film and TV can be a brilliant way to immerse yourself in a particular time period. For the Sinclair’s Mysteries I watched lots of 1900s-set films, from old favourites like The Secret Garden, The Railway Children, Howard’s End and A Room with a View to newer movies like The Illusionist, Suffragette and Testament of Youth (the latter has particularly gorgeous 1910s fashion). Handily, Downton Abbey was also on TV while I was writing the first book.
One obvious TV reference point for me was the TV series Mr Selfridge. However, I’d already started working on the series before the series came out, and so made a deliberate decision not to watch it, because I didn’t want my own Sinclair’s department store to be too strongly influenced by the TV version of Selfridges. I think it was probably the right decision – though I’ve since caught up on a couple of episodes and I loved seeing how they brought Edwardian London and a brand new department store to life.
On my wanderings I’ve spotted all kinds of fragments of old 1900s London beneath the surface of the contemporary city – from ‘ghost signs’ (faded old advertisements that can still be glimpsed on the side of buildings) to 1900s lampposts. I’ve ridden on the tops of London buses trying to imagine what the view would look like for Sophie in Edwardian London; I’ve peered out of windows and explored mysterious alley-ways; and have even gone rowing in a London park to help me get into the mood for a spot of Edwardian boating (in The Jewelled Moth).
Of course I’ve also visited lots of London’s real-life Edwardian department stores. As well as Selfridges, key points of inspiration for the books included Liberty’s, Harrods, and Fortnum & Mason. Liberty’s and Fortnum’s are particularly lovely for a spot of research: stepping through the doors feels rather like going back in time. There’s also a wonderful Edwardian vibe to old-fashioned shops like Hatchard’s, streets like the Burlington Arcade, and London hotels and restaurants like the Wolseley on Piccadilly – which leads me beautifully onto my seventh point…
One of my very favourite research methods! As in all good children’s books, the characters in the Sinclair’s Mysteries do a fair amount of eating, so I spent time finding out about what Edwardian people typically ate. (For the very wealthy it was a quite terrifying amount of food – as anyone who has watched Sue Perkins and Giles Coren’s Edwardian Supersize Me will know!)
Obviously it was only right and proper that I tested out the kind of afternoon tea that might be served up at Sinclair’s, including many cakes, buns, sandwiches and other delicacies. My agent Louise and my editor Ali have been particularly helpful in making sure we’ve done plenty of this all-important research: we even celebrated the publication of The Clockwork Sparrow with a special afternoon tea at Harrods!
It may sound frivolous (and let’s face it, I don’t really need much of an excuse when it comes to eating cakes) but I really do think that focusing on details like what people ate and the clothes they wore goes a long way to helping you imagine what life in another time might have been like.
So there you have it: my seven top tips for researching historical fiction!
I’m joining an awesome line-up of writers, including Emma Carroll, Kiran Millwood Hargrave (winner of the 2017 Waterstones Children’s Book Prize), Catherine Johnson, Ally Kennen, Patrice Lawrence (winner of the 2017 YA Book Prize), M.G. Leonard (winner of the 2017 Branford Boase Award), Sally Nicholls, Ella Risbridger and Eva Wiseman.
Make More Noise! is coming out in February 2018. Each story will celebrate strong female characters, with subjects ranging from the ’43 Group to modern ghost stories. A donation of £1 from the sale of each copy will be given to Camfed, an international charity which tackles poverty and inequality by supporting women’s education in the developing world. The book will be published in time for the centenary anniversary of the Representation of the People Act 1918, which was given Royal Assent on 6th February 1918, extending the franchise to women for the first time.
I love being part of anthologies – Winter Magic and Mystery & Mayhem have been a huge amount of fun – and this is a very special one, about a subject that’s very close to my heart. I’m thrilled to be part of such a fabulous line-up, and am really looking forward to working with Nosy Crow – and especially to seeing what all the other writers come up with. Watch this space for more news on Make More Noise and check out the announcement on the Nosy Crow website here.