2016 has been such busy year! Whilst it’s been a strange (and depressing) one in many ways, for me personally, it’s been a very positive time. I’ll always remember it as the year that my second book The Mystery of the Jewelled Moth was published – and that the pile of my books (see above) grew from one to four!
It’s been a great year for collaboration. I’ve been lucky enough to be included in two amazing short story anthologies, alongside lots of other authors whose writing I hugely admire. I love feeling part of a community of children’s writers, so it was such a treat to be part of Mystery & Mayhem and Winter Magic.
I’m relatively new to short stories and I do find them challenging – but I really enjoyed writing Lil’s solo story ‘The Mystery of the Purloined Pearls’ for Mystery & Mayhem. I also loved writing ‘Casse-Noisette’ for Winter Magic, which is set in 1890s St Petersburg and focuses on the first ever production of The Nutcracker ballet. This is the first story I’ve had published that’s set outside the world of the Sinclair’s Mysteries, and it’s been great to hear so many enthusiastic responses from readers.
Celebrating Winter Magic with Abi Elphinstone and Piers Torday
Launching Mystery & Mayhem with Harriet Whitehorn, Helen Moss and Robin Stevens
2016 was also the year that both Clockwork Sparrow and Jewelled Moth were published in the USA by publishers Kane Miller, which is so exciting! What’s more, this year Clockwork Sparrow was published as an audiobook, read by the wonderful Jessica Preddy! I love audiobooks and I’m thrilled that Clockwork Sparrow exists in audio form – look out for the Jewelled Moth audiobook coming out in January 2017.
I’ve been very busy with lots more writing this year, including working on Books 3 and 4 of the Sinclair’s Mysteries series – book 3, The Painted Dragon is coming out on 9th February.
The cover has had a little tweak since the first reveal, but it looks as shiny and beautiful as ever in all its green glory. I love Karl James Mountford’s stunning artwork, and I think it might be my favourite cover yet. You can preorder the new book here.
I’ve also been working on a couple of exciting new writing projects – more news on those coming very soon!
2016 has also been a very busy year for events. I’ve done over 40 author events this year, including the Hay Festival, the Edinburgh International Book Festival, the Bath Children’s Literature Festival, the Cheltenham Literature Festival to the Children’s Books Ireland conference. Amongst other things, I’ve visited schools and festivals all around the country, led some fun creative writing workshops as part of The Mousetrap’s ‘Mystery Solved’ project, and taken part in two great panel events at Waterstones Piccadilly.
One particularly special moment of 2016 was attending the Waterstones Children’s Book Prize ceremony at Piccadilly when Clockwork Sparrow was on the Younger Fiction shortlist. I’ve been lucky enough to attend the prize for a number of years as a guest, so being there as a shortlisted author alongside so many amazing children’s writers and illustrators was really special. Clockwork Sparrow didn’t win (that honour went to the lovely David Solomons for his My Brother is a Superhero, who also scooped the overall prize) but celebrating with so many friends and colleagues is something I’ll always remember.
Shortlisted authors and illustrators assemble at the Waterstones Children’s Book Prize, with Children’s Laureate Chris Riddell
As well as my own author events, 2016 was the third year of YALC, which was a tremendous success. There’s always more to learn and improve – but overall I’m so proud of everything we’ve achieved with YALC. Here’s the wonderful YALC Working Group who do such an amazing job in helping me make the event happen – my very own Scooby Gang! (This year they even bought me my very own gold umbrella as a present – fans of Buffy will appreciate the significance)
Lovely YALC working group pals
As well as a fantastic YALC, 2016 was also the year that we launched the YA Salon! I’ve teamed up with the brilliant Anna James and Rosi Crawley to launch this fun evening event for adults who love YA books. We kicked things off with our first salon with legendary Baby-Sitter’s Club author Ann M Martin, who was joined by Laura Dockrill and Holly Bourne, for a special event for London Book & Screen Week. We’ve since organised a Christmas themed YA Salon to celebrate Stripes’ new anthology I’ll Be Home for Christmas with a host of fabulous YA authors taking part.
Highlights of the first ever YA Salon
Our lovely authors at the Christmas YA Salon
Children’s books radio show Down the Rabbit Hole has gone from strength to strength this year. Louise, Melissa and I have launched our new website with gorgeous artwork from Rebecca Cobb, introduced a brand new e-newsletter and made the show available as a podcast via iTunes. Of course we’ve also broadcast twelve shows featuring amazing guests including the likes of Clare Balding. Check out our Christmas special here.
We’re already busy planning more exciting things for DTRH in 2017 so make sure you’re subscribed to our podcast and following us on Twitter so you don’t miss anything! (If you want to give us a great Christmas present you can rate or review the show on iTunes here!)
New DTRH website with gorgeous Rebecca Cobb illustrations
Robin and I filming our Mistletoe and Murder video
I’ve been lucky to be involved in lots more fantastic book-related projects this year, including being a judge for both the Bookseller YA Prize, and Stripes’ competition to find a new writer for the I’ll be Home for Christmas anthology, which was a real privilege.
It’s also been lovely to help celebrate the launch of many great new children’s books this year – and even to blurb a few of them! In particular, I’ve loved seeing the spectacular success of MG Leonard’s brilliant debut Beetle Boy, and more recently Peter Bunzl’s amazing debut Cogheart – it’s been pretty cool seeing my name on posters in railway stations around the country!
Amazing Cogheart posters!
On a personal note, 2016 has also been a lovely year for me, with highlights including a visit to Sweden, a relaxing post-YALC summer break in Rye, and a September trip to Paris. Follow me on Instagram if you’d like to see lots more pictures of what I get up to.
Heartfelt thanks to everyone who has supported me this year! I’m so appreciative of all those who have read, reviewed, bought or shared my books, come along to an event, or followed along here. I’m so grateful and feel incredibly lucky that I get to do this. Now bring on 2017!
If you’ve been reading my blog for a while, you might remember that last Christmas I ran a festive competition to win a signed copy of The Mystery of the Clockwork Sparrow, plus a box of lovely goodies worthy of Sinclair’s department store itself!
Well guess what? The competition was so much fun last year that I’m running it again this year! This time round, you can win a signed and dedicated copy of The Mystery of the Jewelled Moth plus a special box of festive goodies that you might find in the store’s confectionery department.
Here’s a little sneak peek at the box:
To enter all you have to do is tell me: which of the characters from the Sinclair’s Mysteries would you most like to spend Christmas with, and why?
The Mystery of the Clockwork Sparrow and The Mystery of the Jewelled (or should I say Jeweled?) Moth have now been published in the USA by Kane Miller Books!
Louise and I celebrated the books going Stateside with a trip to Shakeshack for peanut butter and banana frozen custard, fries and peach lemonade. YUM.
I’m so excited that the books are now available in the US, and so pleased to be published by Kane Miller. Take a look at this little video I made for them to introduce their sales consultants to the books:
Whilst The Mystery of the Clockwork Sparrow focuses closely on the people and goings-on of Sinclair’s, The Mystery of the Jewelled Moth represents a kind of ‘zoom out’ – allowing readers to see more of both the wealthy Sinclair’s customers, such as Veronica Whiteley and her friends, but also something of London’s flip-side – the docks of the East End, where the beautiful goods that were sold at Sinclair’s would first have arrived in the city.
At this time, East End was one of the poorest parts of the London. Whilst just a few miles away, London’s richest grew ever richer thanks to trade with the Empire, life here was tough. Living conditions were poor – some families lived ten to a room, with no access to clean water – wages were low, and disease flourished.
Children’s lives were especially hard – nearly 20% died before their first birthday – and they were often left to fend for themselves and their younger siblings from a very young age, running errands, sweeping streets or helping to make matchboxes to bring in a few much-needed pennies to buy a little stale bread.
East End child, 1911
In spite of all this, the East End was hugely important to London, as the place where goods from all over the world arrived in Britain. Whilst today our docks are largely automated, in the Edwardian era, they employed many thousands of people. Communities of sailors sprung up around the docks – itinerant populations who came and went on the big ships that sailed out of the London docks and travelled all over the world. As such, the East End fast became one of London’s most diverse and multi-cultural quarters.
It was also a place where crime was rife: perhaps not surprising given that for many people ‘honest work’ would mean working 14 hour days at the docks for low pay. The East End has a long history of famous criminals and gangsters (ranging from the Kray brothers to the ‘racetrack gangs’ of the 1920s and 1930s) but in the Edwardian era, probably the best-known was Arthur Harding, who was born in the slums of the Old Nichol in 1886.
Harding became a petty thief early in life and earned his first prison sentence aged 16, before becoming an East End ‘captain of thieves’ on his release. His major rival was Isaac ‘Ikey’ Bogard – a flamboyant character who strode the streets of Spitalfields in a cowboy outfit, with a six-shooter stuck in his back and an assumed American accent to match. (Later in life, Harding wrote his memoirs about his life of crime, which make for entertaining reading.)
There are lots of stories told about the East End of London in the 19th and early 20th centuries. These range from the dark and sinister tales of the Jack the Ripper murders, to the writings of authors like Charles Dickens and Henry Mayhew, who passionately wanted to draw people’s attention to the abject poverty of the East End, and the inequalities of British society.
A little later, and closer to the time that The Mystery of the Jewelled Moth is set, Arthur Morrison published a powerful novel A Child of the Jago, set in a fictional version of the Old Nichol slums, whilst Jack London wrote a book called The People of the Abyss, about his experience of living the life of an East End Londoner for a few months, staying in workhouses or sleeping on the streets.
Today, it’s difficult to read accounts like these without being struck by the awful contrast between the lavish lives of the Edwardian ‘super-rich’ – with their grand balls, elaborate fashions and extraordinarily extravagant meals – and the daily struggles of the Edwardian poor. In The Mystery of the Jewelled Moth, I wanted to explore this contrast, and to write about the Edwardian East End as well as the West. However, I also wanted to tell a slightly different story from the dark tales we might have previously encountered about this area.
I chose to focus particularly on Chinatown, which in this period was situated in the East End, in Limehouse, close to the London docks. You can read more about why I specifically wanted to write about Edwardian Chinatown on the Guardian website here.
In particular, Jewelled Moth introduces us to a young East End girl, Mei Lim and her family. Compared to many children of the East End, Mei is very fortunate – she’s been able to stay on at school until the age of 13, and her parents have their own business, a small grocer’s shop, making them comparitively affluent. But life is still tough and precarious – especially when the Baron’s gang of thugs appear in Chinatown, and start making their presence felt…
A real Chinese shop in Limehouse, 1920s.
The adventure that follows shows two contrasting sides of Edwardian London – the glamorous West End, and the more dangerous and down-at-heel East. The Lim family grocery shop certainly couldn’t be much more different from the glittery, glamorous surroundings of Sinclair’s. Yet I hope the story also points to some of the ways that the carefully-maintained social barriers of the Edwardian era were just beginning to unravel. Although they may live in very different worlds, Mei and her family become unexpectedly entangled with Veronica and her debutante friends, and before long, they find themselves helping each other. Perhaps the people of the West and East Ends of London are not necessarily so very different from each other, after all?
If you’re interested in reading more about London’s East End during the 19th and early 20th centuries, I’d particularly recommend the following books:
London Labour and the London Poor by Henry Mayhew. Written in the mid-nineteenth century, this is an in-depth and very influential exploration of the lives of the London poor based on Mayhew’s interviews with street traders, entertainers, thieves, beggars, sewer-scavengers, chimney-sweeps and many more.
The People of the Abyss by Jack London. Author Jack London was a passionate social activist and in 1902 he decided to experience hands-on how the London poor lived, exploring the slums, sleeping rough and staying in workhouses. This is the book he wrote about his experiences, which makes for a powerful and thought-provoking read.
Lost Voices of the Edwardians by Max Arthur. This wide-ranging book captures the day-to-day lives of working people in Britain throughout the 1900s. It brings together information about many different people and places, but includes lots of memories about what daily life was like in the East End of London during the Edwardian era – including some snippets from Arthur Harding’s memoirs.
In the next installment of my ‘Behind the Scenes’ series I wanted to write in a little more detail about the London Season and the Edwardian debutante – both of which play an important part in The Mystery of the Jewelled Moth.
Each year from the mid-nineteenth century right up until the Second World War, the focal point of Britain’s high society calendar was the London ‘Season’. Every May, wealthy society folk would leave their country houses and travel to their London residences for a three-month whirl of balls, parties and events, that lasted until the end of July.
Highlights of the Season included: the opening of the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition, visits to the Royal Opera House, the Chelsea Flower Show, the Henley Regatta and Ascot – as well as all kinds of balls, parties and dinners, at which members of the aristocracy could meet, mingle and show off.
‘The Season’ was of particular importance for debutantes – young ladies who were making their first appearances in society. For the aristocatic girls of the Edwardian era, growing up happened almost overnight. The Edwardians had no concept of being a teenager or young adult – so until the age of seventeen or eighteen, girls were treated like children and kept to the nursery or schoolroom. Then, all at once, it would be time to pin up their long hair, lengthen their skirts and exchange the schoolroom for the ballroom, as they were plunged into their very first Season.
This sudden transition from childhood to adulthood must have been quite alarming. First of all, there was the etiquette to master. Edwardian society was governed by a strict code of conduct, and woe betide any debutante who put a toe out of line! Sometimes it would be a young lady’s governess who would be responsible for instructing her so that she was ready to navigate the complex social rituals of the London Season – or perhaps she might be sent to a Finishing School to learn dancing, deportment and the proper way to behave.
Etiquette guides were also popular, like Lady Gertrude Elizabeth Campbell’s Etiquette of Good Society, published in 1893, which contained chapters on ‘Letter-Writing’, ‘Private Theatricals’ and ‘Field Sports’ amongst many others. Tips and advice on important matters including fashion, manners and what a girl should expect from her first Season were also published in magazines such as The Lady. (For Jewelled Moth, I had a lot of fun inventing my own etiquette guide inspired by some of these real-life writings. Snippets from my fictional Lady Diana DeVere’s Etiquette for Debutantes: a Guide to the Manners, Mores and Morals of Good Society appear throughout the book though Sophie and Lil don’t often follow them! )
During the Season, debutantes would be accompanied by a chaperone at all times – usually someone like their mother, an aunt or an older sister, who would watch them with an eagle eye to make sure they were behaving properly. They were expected to dress beautifully and appropriately, to display perfect manners, and to be able to dance – but not to do a great deal else!
A very important occasion in a girl’s first season was being presented at Court. For this special (and nerve-wracking) ritual, each debutante wore a head-dress of three curled white ostrich feathers, a white dress, and a pair of long white gloves. Accompanied by a sponsor – a lady who had already been presented – she would attend the Court Presentation, and when her turn came, be formally ‘presented’ to the King and perform her curtsey.
The Edwardian debutante in her court ensemble
Once this ceremony was out of the way, a debutante could embark on the whirl of balls, parties, dinners, afternoon teas and events that made up the Season – by the time the three months were up, many a debutante found herself completely exhausted by the frenzy of social activity!
During the Season, she would have the chance to dress in beautiful gowns, mingle with London’s high society, and most importantly, meet eligible young men – though of course, never without the supervision of her chaperone! For many young ladies, finding a suitable husband was the ultimate goal of the Season – years earlier, Lord Byron famously called the London Season ‘The Marriage Mart’, and so it still was during the Edwardian period.
The Edwardian Ball
Balls were an especially important part of the London Season. They usually began later in the evening – guests might have already attended a dinner party or another event before arriving. They were often held in grand London houses, where guests would dance, eat a delicious supper, and perhaps stroll out onto a terrace to cool off between dances.
On arrival at the balls, young ladies would be given a dance programme: a small card listing all the evening’s dances, with a tiny pencil attached. They then had to wait patiently by the side of the dance-floor with their chaperones, hoping for a young man to approach and ask them to dance – ladies were never allowed to ask men! He would then write his name in the appropriate space on her dance-card. Many debutantes dreaded being left to sit on the sidelines, and their great hope would be to fill their dance-card up as much possible before the dancing actually began.
The most important of all the dances was the supper-dance, because after this, a young lady’s partner would take her through to have supper, meaning that they would have chance to spend more time together. But even this was not really an opportunity to talk privately with a potential suitor: even whilst chatting over supper, a debutante knew that her chaperone was always watching! The sharp eyes of Edwardian high society were always on the look-out for even the smallest signs of what it considered ‘improper behaviour’.
As well as more traditional balls, the Edwardians enjoyed themed dances such as the Royal Caledonian Ball, where men dressed in Highland attire and everyone danced Scottish reels. They also loved fancy-dress balls like the one that takes place in Jewelled Moth – though their costumes were perhaps a little different to those we might wear at a fancy-dress party today.
An impressive fancy dress costume from the Duchess of Devonishire’s Fancy Dress Ball of 1897
For some girls, the highlight of their first Season would be their own ‘coming-out ball’ which was usually organised by their parents in their honour, as a celebration of their coming-of-age. In Jewelled Moth, debutante Miss Veronica Whiteley’s coming-out ball has an especially important part to play in the story.
Writing about Veronica and her fellow debutantes – and the ritzy, glitzy world of the London Season they inhabit – was great fun, but it also gave me chance to explore what I can only imagine must have been the turbulent ups-and-downs of a girl’s first appearances in society. Tightly-corseted (in more ways than one!), the debutantes had to contend with strict rules, high expectations, the pressure to look perfect, and a complete lack of any kind of freedom or independence. What was more, they were constantly pitted against each other in a competition for social triumph that makes Mean Girls look tame.
My debutante character, Veronica, is a bit of a Mean Girl herself – but who can blame her when she has been so suddenly plunged from the sheltered, comfortable world of childhood and home into the unfamiliar adult world of London society? In this story, she soon finds herself grappling with some dark and shocking secrets, and alarmingly sinister schemes – but with the help of Sophie, Lil and friends, her first Season becomes an opportunity for a coming-of-age of a very different kind.
If you’d like to find out more about debutantes and the London Season during the Edwardian era, I’d recommend The 1900s Lady by Kate Caffrey. It’s sadly out of print now but if you can find a copy second-hand or in a library it’s a fascinating and entertaining (if rather idiosyncratic and not altogether factual) portrait of the lives of upper class girls and women of the Edwardian period.
Debutantes and the London Season by Lucinda Gosling is a great little summary of the history of the debutantes and the Season – from their eighteenth century origins right up until the final Court presentations in 1958.
This post is based on some content first produced for the Jewelled Moth blog tour. You can read the original posts in full here: