When I first started writing the Sinclair’s Mysteries, while I loved the idea of Edwardian girl detectives, I had a feeling that it was unlikely that my heroines Sophie and Lil had many real-life counterparts. Although I’d come across works of fiction like Revelations of a Lady Detective, and The Female Detective published in the mid-19th century I suspected that real lady detectives at this time had in fact been few and far between. And although many new opportunities were opening up for women in the early 20th century, I couldn’t somehow imagine that there were really many young women who had the opportunity to work as professional detectives as Sophie and Lil do in my stories – never mind setting up their own detective agency. However…
Reader, I was entirely wrong.
In my research for the Sinclair’s Mysteries and Taylor & Rose Secret Agents series, I’ve discovered that there were many women engaged in detective work both in London and further afield in the late 19th century and early 20th centuries. In fact, one of the first lady detectives Kate Warne got a job at the famous Chicago agency Pinkerton’s as early as 1856. By 1894, Henry Slater (head of one of London’s largest detective agencies) was advertising Slater’s Women Detectives and at around the same time, Moser’s Ladies Detective Agency was set up by his rival, the ex-Scotland Yard inspector Maurice Moser. Meanwhile, Kate Easton was one of the first lady detectives to set up her own agency in London, which she established in 1905, declaring: ‘Blackmail, divorce, evidence, robbery, I undertake it all; I have touched everything except murder.’
Meanwhile, although women could not officially work for the police in the UK, Scotland Yard had been quietly hiring lady detectives to help with their cases as early as 1899. And across the pond in the USA, Isabella Goodwin was hired as New York’s first woman police detective in the 1900s, investigating burglars and swindlers; whilst Frances Benzecry worked as a detective for the medical societies of Brooklyn and Manhattan to expose fake medical pracitioners.
Anyone who has read the Sinclair’s Mysteries and Taylor & Rose Secret Agents will be interested to hear that another place women detectives could often be found in the 1900s was in London’s department stores! Stores like my own (fictional) Sinclair’s would frequently hire women to help prevent shoplifting, as women detectives were better able to blend in with the customers. When it opened in 1909, Selfridges hired a detective named Matilda Mitchell as the head up its very own ‘secret service’. She and her staff helped to catch thieves and frustrate the efforts of gangs like the ‘Forty Elephants’ who would sweep into the shop and cause a rumpus, while others quickly stuffed furs and expensive trinkets into outfits fitted with pockets especially for the purpose.
Maud reportedly set up her own detective agency in 1905: she had a number of both male and female detectives working for her, and an office in Bloomsbury. She had a particular eye for publicity, placing advertisements in the press (‘Maud West, Lady Detective. Are you worried? If so, consult me! Private enquiries and delicate matters undertaken anywhere with secrecy and ability’) but also writing colourful newspaper stories about her cases, seeking out publicity stunts, and circulating pictures of herself in various disguises.
According to her own accounts, her detective work involved everything from unmasking blackmailers to foiling jewel thieves to infiltrating dangerous gangs. She frequently used disguises, changing her appearance with wigs and make-up, and often dressed as a man, occupying rooms in a hotel as a ‘titled Englishman’ and following her suspects ‘into their clubs, playing baccarat beside them at the Monte Carlo Casino. She would reportedly disguise herself as ‘a shabby old scrubwoman’ at 5pm before being at the Ritz elegantly dressed for dinner by 7pm. She even claimed to have been involved in catching foreign spies, and just like Sophie and Lil, apparently worked for the British intelligence services during the First World War.
Something else that I was particularly intrigued to discover about Maud is that just like Sophie she appears to have started her career as a shop assistant – possibly even working in millinery – and that just like Lil she may have spent some time on the stage.
Later, her two daughters also came to work for her as detectives. One newspaper reported that her daughter Vera (described as ‘a pretty fair-haired girl of 17’ when she first started working for Maud) was such a clever young detective that she was dubbed ‘Miss Sherlock Holmes’.
It seems that my idea of Edwardian girl detectives was not so very far-fetched after all!
There are obviously lots of children’s and young adult books set elsewhere in Russia, or that are inspired by Russian folk tales. However, these five all have scenes that are set specifically in and around St Petersburg (or Leningrad) itself.
Deep in the snowy woods, Feo lives in a wooden house, with her mother – a ‘wolf-wilder’ who helps to re-wild the wolves that foolish men have tried to tame. Feo has grown up amongst the wolves, and could howl before she could talk. But when the Russian Army appear and kidnap her mother, Feo’s life is turned upside down. Now she must travel through the harsh winter landscape to St Petersburg to try and rescue her mother, teaming up with some unexpected new friends she meets along the way. This is an enchanting story from Katherine Rundell, with wonderfully atmospheric illustrations from Gelrev Ongbico. Egg & Spoon by Gregory Maguire
In this reimagining of the classic story of The Prince and the Pauper set in Tsarist Russia, Elena lives in the impoverished Russian countryside. Her future is bleak, until the night that a grand steam train stops unexpectedly at her village’s abandoned station. Aboard is Ekaterina, a girl who looks just like Elena, although in every other way she couldn’t be more different. Soon the two girls have switched places and Elena is on her way to St Petersburg – beginning an extrordinary adventure that also features a Fabergé Egg, the mythical Firebird, a prince in disguise, and the famous Baba Yaga herself.
In this instalment of Lauren St John’s engaging Laura Marlin series, young detective Laura, her faithful husky Skye and her friend Tariq have left behind their Cornish home for another adventure abroad. This time they’re joining a film crew in the faraway city of St Petersburg. But once on the set of ‘The Artistocratic Thief’, a new movie about an art heist, they find themselves mixed up in a real-life mystery.
Set in 1938, during the time of Stalin’s purges, this is the intriguing story of 7-year-old Shura. He leads a normal life in Leningrad, going to school, playing with his friends, and fighting with his big sister. But then his Mama, Papa and baby brother Bobka suddenly disappear without trace. The neighbours are saying they were enemies of Stalin, who have been taken away by the mysterious ‘Raven’. Desperate to reunite his family, Shura sets out to hunt down the ‘Raven’ – but there are strange adventures ahead.
On a school trip to St Petersburg, Sophie and her friends get aboard the wrong train. They are rescued by the beautiful and mysterious Princess Anna Volkonskaya, who takes them to her winter palace and mesmerises them with stories of lost diamonds and a tragic past. But as night falls and wolves prowl, Sophie discovers that secrets – and dangers – are lying in wait for her in the crumbling palace …
Finally of course I have to mention Taylor & Rose Secret Agents: Spies in St Petersburg! In the second in the Taylor & Rose Secret Agents series, it’s 1911 and Sophie is missing in action after an explosive Secret Service Bureau mission in Paris. Lil decides to take matters into her own hands, setting out to track her down in misty and mysterious St Petersburg. But can they uncover the identity of their true enemy – and can they trust anyone, even the Bureau itself?
If you have a favourite children’s book set in St Petersburg I’d love to hear about it – leave me a comment below!
If you enjoyed this list then do check out my other Taylor & Rose inspired booklists:
The second book in the Taylor & Rose Secret Agents series, Spies in St Petersburg is out now! As I’m currently on maternity leave I haven’t managed to celebrate in quite such an epic way as for my last book (no trip to Paris this time!) but I’ve still been enjoying welcoming this new book into the world.
Here’s a reminder of what you can expect from Spies in St Petersburg:
Following on from Peril in Paris, this new book delves further into the thrilling world of espionage. Sophie is still missing in action after an explosive mission in Paris, leaving Lil to take matters into her own hands.
On a new mission for the Secret Service Bureau, can Lil find Sophie in misty, mysterious St. Petersburg? Can they uncover the identity of their true enemy and can they trust anyone – even the Bureau?
Check out this post I wrote for the Egmont blog about how I visited St Petersburg to research the book, which includes lots of photographs from my Russian adventures. And take a look at my Spies in St Petersburg Pinterest board full of visual inspirations here.
I’m already enjoying seeing all the responses to the book online, including quite a lot of reactions to the book’s ending which just might be a tiny bit of a cliffhanger…
My new series, Taylor & Rose Secret Agents, is set in 1911-1912 and as such, takes us out of the Edwardian era proper and into the pre-First World War period. But before saying farewell to all things Edwardian, I realised I’d never written anything here about one of the most important influences on the Sinclair’s Mysteries – some of my favourite Edwardian era-set children’s books.
Here are ten of my favourites. Some of these were actually written in the Edwardian era itself – which although a relatively short time period was a golden age for children’s literature, in which the likes of Peter Pan, The Wind in the Willows and The Tale of Peter Rabbit all first appeared. Others were written more recently but are set in the 1900s and speak to that tradition. There are lots more I could mention but these ten are the books that had the biggest influence on the Sinclair’s Mysteries and that sum up the Edwardian ‘feel’ I wanted to evoke.
One thing I should say about all of these books is that almost without exception they focus on the experience of white middle class (or upper class) characters. It’s also worth bearing in mind that those written in the 1900s often demonstrate attitudes to gender, class, disability and especially race that will not sit well with contemporary readers. Without wanting to suggest there’s any sort of ‘easy fix’, it’s for this reason that I wanted to depict a wider range of characters in the Sinclair’s Mysteries – from the working class half-Chinese Lim family to mixed race housemaid Tilly and disabled aristocrat Leo – and in doing so represent a broader spectrum of Edwardian society than we might typically encounter in these books. How successfully I’ve done this I’m not sure (perhaps unsurprisingly there are fewer accounts of mixed race Edwardian children in the East End to draw on than there are of those living in comfortable middle-class suburbs!) but I hope the Sinclair’s Mysteries therefore reflects some of the diversity of 1900s London.
Edith Nesbit always seems to me to be the ultimate Edwardian children’s author. From her unconventional family life to her hand-rolled cigarettes and Fabian politics she was very much a radical – and yet her books have a particularly cosy quality. The Railway Children is probably the most famous (perhaps in part because of the classic film version) and follows Bobbie, Peter and Phyllis as they are forced to leave behind their comfortable middle-class home in the London suburbs for a new life with their mother in a country cottage after their father suddenly disappears one night. In their new home they soon become involved in all the doings of the nearby railway station – but meanwhile, what has happened to father? It’s peak Edwardiana, from the iconic red flannel petticoats to the toes of Phyllis’s (usually untied) boots. There are so many delightful scenes – the moving house picnic with marmalade and sardines! Bobbie’s birthday tea! All the handkerchiefs waving from the train! – but it’s the final chapter of the book and especially the last lines that bring me to tears every time.
It may not be as well known as some of her other books, but to my mind this is one of Nesbit’s most brilliant. This is the story of the Bastable children who set out with the ambition of ‘restoring the fallen fortunes of the house of Bastable’. From their home on the Lewisham Road, and with a bit of help/hindrance from Albert Next Door (and occasionally Albert Next Door’s Uncle) they try various inventive schemes for making money – from publishing their own newspaper to digging for treasure to becoming highwaymen. Needless to say most of them go disastrously wrong. It’s funnier than The Railway Children but there is plenty of pathos here too. The first few pages are a masterclass in narrative voice and perfectly demonstrate the qualities that make Nesbit such an exceptional children’s writer.
There are plenty of downtrodden yet plucky orphans in Edwardian children’s fiction, but Sara Crewe is one of the stand-outs. At the start of this story she leads a life of luxury as the heiress to diamond mines and the star pupil at Miss Minchin’s Select Seminary for Young Ladies. She has a fabulous wardrobe of rose-pink dancing frocks, gorgeous and glamorous dolls, and all the sponge cakes she can eat. But when her beloved father dies and her fortune vanishes overnight, she soon finds herself having to work as a maid for the deeply unpleasant Miss Minchin. Sara will need all her strength and powers of imagination if she is to continue to behave like ‘a little princess’. Although it may be highly sentimental, this is a truly delightful read and contains one of the most magical scenes in children’s literature (if you’ve read it, you know).
My other Frances Hodgson Burnett pick is one of my all-time favourite children’s books. Interestingly at the time it was Little Lord Fauntleroy which was Hodgson Burnett‘s most popular book (of which more later) whereas today it’s probably The Secret Garden which is the most beloved – by me at any rate. Here, another orphan, the sulky and sour Mary Lennox, is sent from India to live with her unknown uncle at his Yorkshire home, Misselthwaite Manor. There she discovers long-buried secrets, including a forgotten garden that she sets about bringing back to life. A tribute to the transformative power and magic of nature, it’s a glorious book – and again the final pages are guaranteed to move me to tears, no matter how many times I have read them.
This one is a bit of a cheat as it’s strictly speaking not a children’s book at all, though read by many children both in the 1900s and today. But I couldn’t write about the Edwardian books that influenced the Sinclair’s Mysteries without giving a nod to the quintessential Edwardian detective story: Holmes and Watson might not have a great deal in common with Sophie and Lil, but there’s certainly an important connection. I always enjoy the smoggy, murky atmosphere of Sherlock Holmes’s London and as with Conan Doyle’s stories, I was keen for the Sinclair’s Mysteries to show the reader some of the different faces of the city – from the grimy East End to the ritzy and glitzy world of the Edwardian upper classes.
Noel Streatfeild is well-known for Ballet Shoes and her other (wonderful) books set in the world of theatre and dance, but this story is a little different, being closely based on her own childhood in the 1900s. Growing up in a vicarage, Vicky is the ‘difficult’ middle child sandwiched in between her pretty and talented older sister Isobel and spoilt younger sister Louise. Out of place and often in trouble both at school and at home, only her cousin John seems to really understand her. Full of intriguing period detail, this is a moving and compelling story which paints a vivid picture of Edwardian girlhood – it’s an absolute must for Streatfeild fans but fascinating for anyone interested in ‘ordinary’ life in the 1900s.
Thursday’s Child by Noel Streatfeild
When she is sent to live at a miserable orphanage, spirited Margaret Thursday soon befriends the shabby but genteel Beresford family – Lavinia, Peter and Horatio, who have lost their mother and fallen on hard times. Lavinia is sent to become a scullery maid at a local Manor house, while Peter and Horatio join Margaret at the orphanage – but soon, the three of them decide to run away. There is unexpected help from a canal bargeman and his family and before long they’ve found employment as ‘leggers’ on a barge – before taking to the stage in a travelling production of Little Lord Fauntleroy where Margaret quickly becomes a star turn. But can Lavinia track them down and let them know about the unexpected and dramatic change in their fortunes? A clear tribute to Frances Hodgson Burnett, this is one of Streatfeild’s less well-known books (and looks to be currently out of print) but is thoroughly enjoyable, with all the elements of a rags-to-riches Edwardian story – from plucky orphans to long-lost relations to pleasingly unpleasant villains.
There’s more shades of Hodgson Burnett in this utterly gorgeous book from one of my favourite children’s authors, Eva Ibbotson. Orphan Maya is excited when she is sent away from her ordinary life at school in England to live in South America with some unknown relatives – but her new life soon proves fraught with challenges. Yet the lush Amazonian jungle offers unexpected consolations – and before long, a wild adventure beckons. A touring play of Little Lord Fauntleroy once again makes an appearance here, alongside another brave orphan heroine, some vile villains, and a particularly wonderful governess in Miss Minton. A truly joyous read.
There’s another orphan/heiress at the centre of this story for older readers, which is the first in a trilogy. Christina is sent to an impoverished country house, Flambards, where she is to live with her tyrannical, brutish uncle and her cousins Mark and Will. Life at Flambards is tough and sometimes unpleasant, but Christina soon discovers a passion for horses and hunting she never imagined. But while Mark shares her love of hunting, it’s Will – who hates riding and instead dreams of flying aeroplanes – with whom Christina strikes up a close relationship. Far from a cosy country-house novel, this is a powerful young adult book, tackling the subject of class as well as the challenges of adolescence. There are two sequels which follow Christina and Flambards into the First World War and beyond.
C.S. Lewis knew exactly what he was doing when he set this, my favourite of the Narnia books, at the time when ‘Mr. Sherlock Holmes was still living in Baker Street and the Bastables were looking for treasure in the Lewisham Road’. In doing so he immediately evokes the spirit of Edwardian children’s literature – and Edwardian London. The story follows Polly and Digory who live next-door to each other in terraced houses with interconnecting attics. An encounter with Digory’s rather sinister Uncle Andrew whisks them away via a magic ring to the mysterious Wood Between the Worlds – and then to the land of Narnia where they encounter Queen Jadis. The influence of Christianity (and here, in particular, the story of Genesis) on Lewis’s writing is well known but I think it’s interesting to note that E Nesbit is also a clear inspiration for Lewis. In particular The Magician’s Nephew has a lot in common with Nesbit’s The Story of the Amulet which also features magic jewellery and a powerful ancient queen transported to 1900s London.
And one final book I want to mention which is absolutely not a children’s book at all…
Adults who are interested in the history of Edwardian children’s literature should absolutely read this captivating and completely engrossing novel by AS Byatt which won the Booker Prize. An extraordinary portrait of the period from the end of the 19th century until the First World War, it’s rich with references to everything from the suffragettes to the Arts and Crafts movement. At its centre is the children’s writer Olive Wellwood (loosely inspired by E Nesbit) and many real writers including JM Barrie and Kenneth Graeme also appear in its pages. Amongst many other things, Byatt’s novel is a powerful exploration of Edwardian childhood and what it might mean to write for and about children – including the darker sides of fairy-tale and children’s fiction.
What are your favourite Edwardian-set children’s books? If you have any recommendations please do let me know in the comments. And you can find out more about the real Edwardian history behind the Sinclair’s Mysteries and Taylor & Rose Secret Agents series here.
Peril in Paris has already been out in the world for a whole month, and I’m only now getting round to writing about it! That’s because it’s been a super-busy few weeks – not only have I recently moved house, I’ve also been enjoying lots of fun celebrations to welcome the first book in the Taylor & Rose Secret Agents series.
Several exciting things happened in the run up to publication. First of all, with the help of Arcus Studios, publisher Egmont created this incredible animated trailer for the book using Karl’s illustrations, which perfectly evokes what the book is all about. (Make sure you’ve got your sound on – the music is a treat!)
As soon as the book hit shops at the beginning of August, I went out and about on a little tour of London to sign lots of copies, including visits to Waterstones branches at Finchley Road, Islington Green, Trafalgar Square, Piccadilly and Kings Road. I also made this ‘shelfie’ video for Waterstones in which I recommend some of my favourite children’s books which, like Peril in Paris, have female friendships firmly at their heart.
To celebrate the new book, I met up with my brilliant agent and editor for some delicious French treats at Maison Bertaux – magnifique!
Next, in what may have been one of my most unapologetically ‘extra’ book launch celebrations to date, I headed off to Paris for a celebratory day-trip with my friends Katie, Nina and Claire. We had a truly superbe day enjoying the Paris shops, strolling past the sights, and taking a boat trip along the Seine – as well as eating some tasty French food and taking about a million photos. What a treat – thanks guys, I honestly can’t think of a better way to welcome Peril in Paris into the world!
Next up was a trip to the Edinburgh International Book Festival, one of my very favourite book festivals and always a highlight of the year! I teamed up with Robin for an event as part of the festival Schools Programme, and then with Natasha Farrant for an event about thrilling adventures, also featuring her book The Children of Castle Rock. I got to read from Peril in Paris for the very first time; signed lots of books for the readers who came along; and Natasha and I even had a dog join us on stage – I think that’s definitely a first!
Another exciting happening at this year’s EIBF was getting to meet the brilliant Chelsea Clinton (see above). Chelsea was in Edinburgh to talk about her new children’s book She Persisted Around the World, and was kind enough to join us for a special recording of Down the Rabbit Hole, where she spoke to me and to her fellow guest Katherine Webber about her book, as well as her favourite children’s books. Have a listen here.
Finally, another amazing thing that happened was this – a Peril in Paris themed milkshake! I’m thrilled that SBlended have created the brilliantly-named ‘Moo La La’, inspired by the book – look out for them in their shops. They’re running a competition too, find out more here. (I certainly never could have imagined that one of my books would inspire its very own milkshake – and I can’t wait to try one!)
There have been lots of lovely responses to Peril in Paris already: if you’ve read it, do let me know what you think of Sophie and Lil’s latest adventure. If you haven’t read it yet, you can of course get a copy from Waterstones, The Hive or Amazon. It’s also currently available as part of a promotion in both Waterstones and WH Smith Travel stores, so do look out for it there!
And if you fancy finding out a bit more about the book then check out my Peril in Paris Pinterest board, and stay tuned for some more posts about the historical background, coming up shortly!