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.
I’m absolutely in love with the stunning and sumptuous cover for this thrilling Russian adventure for Sophie and Lil, which has once again been illustrated by the marvellous Karl James Mountford. Karl and designer Laura Bird always come up with such incredible artwork – I can’t wait to see the internal illustrations.
In this sequel to Peril in Paris, Sophie and Lil will be heading to Imperial Russia for a thrilling adventure, where they will soon discover that the glittering palaces and extraordinary entertainments of St Petersburg are hiding sinister secrets. Here’s a bit more about what you can expect from the new book:
With Sophie still missing in action after their explosive mission in Paris, Lil decides 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? It’s time for Sophie and Lil to put their spy skills to the test.
If you’ve read Taylor & Rose Secret Agents: Peril in Paris, you’ll know that an air race plays a very important part in the story. The Grand Aerial Tour of Europe, which appears in the book, is fictional – but it’s inspired by some of the real-life air races which really did take place during the 1910s.
In this post as part of my Behind the Scenes series, I’m going to talk a little bit more about these air races, and why they were so important. In the 1910s aeroplanes were still a very new invention: although people had been experimenting with aviation for some time, it was only in 1903 that the Wright Brothers had achieved ‘sustained, controlled, powered flight’ – in other words, the first proper aeroplane flight.
In the years that followed, aviation rapidly became popular. France was one of the nations that quickly embraced the new technology, producing many young pilots known for their daring and vitesse (speed). In Germany, Prince Heinrich (the Kaiser’s brother) became the first Royal to take to the air – and in 1910 learned to fly an aeroplane himself. Aviation quickly gained popularity in America, and Japan also took a keen interest, sending army officers to France and Germany to train as pilots. (The character of Captain Nakamura in Peril in Paris is loosely based on the real-life Captain Yoshitoshi Tokugawa who went to France to learn to fly and then piloted the first ever flight in Japan, which took place in Tokyo in December 1910.)
Initially Britain was more cautious: rather than the government, it was actually newspaper magnate Lord Northcliffe who pointed out the particular importance of flight for Britain, declaring that ‘England is no longer an island’ after Louis Bleriot’s successful crossing of the Channel by plane (fun fact for fans of the Sinclair’s Mysteries -Bleriot’s plane was later exhibited at Selfridges department store so that people could come and see it for themselves, which I can well imagine happening at Sinclair’s!) With this in mind, it was Lord Northcliffe who initiated one of the most important British air-races – the Daily Mail Circuit of Britain – to boost the popularity of aviation in the UK.
By 1911, when Peril in Paris is set, air races had become very popular, offering bold young pilots the chance to show off their skills, test out their new planes – and win impressive prizes. Real-life examples that helped inspire my fictional Grand Aerial Tour of Europe include the 1911 Circuit of Europe Race, which covered a distance of almost 1,000 miles, and was sponsored by the French newspaper Le Journal. 500,000 spectators turning out to see the start of the Circuit of Europe Race.
Many of the pilots who took part in these races soon became famous, including the likes of Louis Bleriot, Hubert Latham, Eugene Lefebvre and Leon Delagrange. However, early aviation was tough: whilst 43 pilots took part in the Circuit of Europe Air Race, only nine of them managed to complete the whole course successfully. Three of them were killed in fatal accidents – early aviation was dangerous, and plane crashes and fires were relatively common. Air races could be dangerous for spectators too: during the Paris-to-Madrid Air Race which also took place in 1911, the French Minister of War, Henri Berteaux, was killed, and others were injured when an aircraft lost power and crashed into the crowd at the start of the race.
At around the same time that these air races were taking place, governments around the world were beginning to see the potential of aviation for military and intelligence use – as journalist Roberta Russell points out to Sophie in Peril in Paris. The Italians were the first to use planes for surveillance, in their war with Turkey in 1911. Just a few years later, when World War I broke out, aeroplanes would have a crucially important role to play.
If you’re interested in finding out more about aviation during this period, I’d recommend KM Peyton’s Flambards books for young adults, in particular The Edge of the Cloud. You might also be entertained by the 1965 film ‘Those Magnificent Men in their Flying Machines’, a comedy set in 1910 based around a fictional air-race from London to Paris. It seems very dated now, but it’s fun and intriguing to see one of the 1910s air races brought to life on screen!
The pictures in this post come via my Peril in Paris Pinterest board (click the image for the source) where you can also find lots more images that helped inspire the book.
It’s been a while since I’ve written one of my ‘Behind the Scenes’ blog posts, exploring the real-life historical background to my books, the Sinclair’s Mysteries and new series Taylor & Rose Secret Agents. However, today I thought I’d write a little bit about the Secret Service Bureau – the top-secret government spy organisation which appears in my latest book Taylor & Rose Secret Agents: Peril in Paris.
If you’ve read the ‘Author’s Note’ at the back of the book, you’ll already know that this organisation takes its inspiration from the real-life Secret Service Bureau, which really was set up secretly by the British government towards the end of 1909, to carry out intelligence work. Although it was initially small, the SSB soon grew, and was divided into two separate divisions – one which focused on counter-espionage at home in Britain, another gathering intelligence abroad. Today, we know those two divisions as ‘MI5’ and ‘MI6’.
My version of the SSB is very much fictional, but has some basis in real-life history. In Peril in Paris, we rejoin young detectives Sophie and Lil in 1911, and find them working for the newly-formed Secret Service Bureau as secret agents, helping to track down German spies. Early in its history, the real SSB actually did employ private detectives to carry out their work in this way – although I’m afraid that in all my research, I didn’t come across any real-life examples of young women detectives working for them!
The focus on routing out German spies is also based on real history. In the run-up to the First World War, there was growing tension between Britain and Germany. Suspicion abounded about a network of German spies working undercover in Britain, gathering secret information to pass back to the German government. Interestingly though, today there is some debate amongst historians about how established or successful this German ‘spy network’ really was. Some have suggested that the government officials who first set up the SSB may have been influenced by wild rumours circulating about spies: Lord Esher famously commented ‘spy catchers get espionage on the brain’. These rumours could have been stimulated by the writings of novelists such as William Le Queux, who wrote hugely popular novels such as The Invasion of 1910 and Spies of the Kaiser, which whipped people into a frenzy about the threat from Germany. (Other popular spy books from this period include the likes of The Riddle of the Sands and The Thirty-Nine Steps.)
In the same way, whilst he is also very much fictional, ‘C’, the boss of the SSB who appears in Peril in Parisowes a little something to the two directors of the real-life SSB – Vernon Kell (sometimes known as ‘K’) who headed up the domestic branch (later MI5) and Mansfield Cumming (known as ‘C’) who looked after foreign affairs (later MI6).
The two men were very different and sometimes clashed with each other. ‘K’ spoke many languages, and had served in the military in both Russia and China before returning to London to work for the War Office, before being chosen to head up the SSB while still only in his mid-30s. He was known to be quiet, tactful, diplomatic and charming – a strategic thinker, highly organised. ‘C’, by contrast, was an extrovert – cheerful and amusing, who considered intelligence work ‘capital sport’. He had several eccentricities, some of which I borrowed for my own fictional ‘C’, including that he always signed his name in green ink. (‘C’ was later to become a customary name for all later directors, coming to stand for ‘Chief’).
In my research into the real SSB, I also found out about some of the people who worked for them. These included William Melville (sometimes known as ‘M’) a former police detective and Superintendant of Scotland Yard’s Special Branch who had helped foil an assassination plot against Queen Victoria. He officially retired in 1903 but went on to secretly carry out intelligence work for the government, later becoming an important part of K’s department who focused on searching out German spies. He eventually even founded a ‘spy school’ in Whitehall to help train other secret agents. (One of my favourite facts about him is that he apparently befriended the illusionist Harry Houdini, who taught him to pick locks!) Other key figures included Sidney Reilly, the famous ‘Ace of Spies’ who worked undercover in Tsarist Russia, and was involved in so many dramatic incidents that many have speculated he was the original inspiration for the most famous fictional spy of all – James Bond.
What’s more, the fictional German spymaster Ziegler who is mentioned in Peril in Paris also has a real-life counterpart – Steinhauer, who was the head of the German intelligence service from 1901. He had spent a lot of time in America and spoke fluent English. Ironically he actually worked alongside Melville in the early 1900s to prevent an assassination of the Kaiser organised by Russian anarchists. He was responsible for placing German spies in Britain before World War I and is supposed to have recruited many of them himself, travelling to Britain under various secret identities, often in disguise.
There’s lots more that I could write about the real-life Secret Service Bureau – there are dozens of books about it, including both official and unofficial histories. Some that I read included MI5 in the Great War edited by Nigel West, Spooks: The Unofficial History of MI5 by Thomas Hennessey and Claire Thomas, The Defence of the Realm: The Authorised History of MI5 by Christopher Andrew and Spies of the Kaiser: Counter-Espionage before the First World War.
Ultimately, however, in Peril in Paris I had a lot of fun imagining my own version of the SSB, inspired partly by this research, but also by the traditions of the spy thriller. Because of course, no classic spy story would be complete without a visit to a mysterious head office, where the secret agent receives their instructions from the charismatic director – whether it’s ‘M’ in James Bond films, ‘Control’ in John Le Carré’s novels, or Alan Blunt and Mrs Jones who appear in Anthony Horowitz’s Alex Rider books.
Of course, that’s exactly what happens to Sophie at the beginning of Peril in Paris when she goes to the SSB to meet ‘C’ and be given an exciting new assignment – which will soon see her setting out to Paris on an undercover mission to investigate a mysterious murder …
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!