TSC US Edition

SilentCompanions_CVF_3Just a quick post to let my US readers know they can now pre-order THE SILENT COMPANIONS!

The book will be coming out from Penguin Random House on 6th March 2018. You can place your order here. I think it’s still undergoing some adjustments on the website, however, as it’s linked to ‘Historical Romance’ … you will be very disappointed if you are looking for a romantic read! It also describes 45-year-old Rupert Bainbridge as a ‘handsome young heir’. Well, I guess he’s still relatively young, but not for Victorian times…

But don’t you just love the understated, creepy cover? I’m so lucky with this book being published in multiple territories, I get more than just one wonderful cover.

Caboodle

SilentCompanions_AnimatedCoverJust a quick post to let you know that Bloomsbury are running a competition with National Book Tokens over at Caboodle. There are 100 advance proof copies of THE SILENT COMPANIONS up for grabs! To enter, simply click here and fill out the form.

As an added bonus, click on the cover picture at the top of this post. Hopefully you will see the figures coming to life!

By Candlelight

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I am very pleased to report that my publisher, Bloomsbury Raven, have started sending out proof copies of THE SILENT COMPANIONS to selected members of the industry! To make them extra special, each book is going with its own box of custom matches, enabling the reader to have a candle-lit Victorian experience.

It’s an apt ‘freebie’, as matches play a large part in the story: the heroine, Elsie, grew up in her father’s match factory and at the time the book begins, she is the co-owner along with her brother Jolyon. I thought I would take this opportunity to share with you a little bit of the research I did into Victorian matches and their manufacture.

The matches our Victorian ancestors knew were much more dangerous than their modern counterparts. While the ‘strike anywhere’ heads made storytelling easier for me, you can imagine the hazard of holding a match that can catch fire when scraped across practically any surface. Accidents could and did happen, particularly in the factories, where rogue matches would spark. Even the friction from stepping on a match could cause a person to go up in flames. The ominously named ‘Lucifer box’ was a slight improvement, whereby the match was drawn sharply between two pieces of sandpaper to ignite it. These came as a little book with the matches – it was not until later on that the sandpaper was pasted to the back of box.

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However, the main risk matches posed was not to their user, but to the poor souls engaged in making them. Before the invention of the ‘safety-head’, all matches were dipped in poisonous white phosphorous. Described as ‘the Devil’s element’, white phosphorous can burn the skin. If ingested, it will corrode the stomach lining, causing vomiting with blood. Victorian match workers would have to paddle the deadly mixture of white phosphorus, sulfur and glue over a stove – sometimes, the same stove they made their own food on – inhaling the toxic fumes. Consequently, many match workers gave off a fine white vapour, or found their clothing glowed in the dark.

Prolonged exposure could give rise to the dreaded condition of Phossy Jaw. With this terrible disease the teeth fell out, the jaw swelled up and the bones rotted with a discharge that glowed. Abscesses appeared on the gums, oozing a garlicky smelling pus.  In some cases, it was possible to see straight through the skin to the jawbone beyond. The only treatment that stopped the phosphorous from damaging the internal organs was to remove the infected bones, but this wasn’t always successful, as you can imagine with the surgery of the time.

In THE SILENT COMPANIONS, Elsie is a conscientious employer who insists on the use of ventilator fans and separate buildings for the matches to dry in. Many workers were not as lucky. They would have to work in sheds, consuming their meals where the phosphorous was heated, or where the frames of ready-dipped matches were left to dry. A large number of these workers were children. Relentless, day after day exposure to a stuffy, chemical environment inevitably took its toll upon the workers’ health. But even when this was noted, and the red phosphorous ‘safety-heads’ were introduced, many factories went on making Lucifer matches in the old fashion. Why? Public demand. It was pricier to buy safety matches and some of the working classes could simply not afford them. As Dickens writes in Household Words, ‘The Lucifer Matches sometimes fail, but they cost little, and so they are freely used, even by the poorest.’

Even before the famous Match Girls’ strike of 1888, philanthropists made visits to match factories to report on the health of the workers. One of my favourite quotes comes from Mr Whites Report on the Lucifer Match Manufacturer; Children’s Employment Commission, First Report (v.18) 1863. ‘ In this drying room,’ he writes, ‘the late owner, Mrs Halsey’s husband, was burned to death a short time since in trying to put out a fire, said to have been caused by a child out of mischief.’ While of course I feel terrible for Mr Halsey, I love the human element of this anecdote. It is yet another reminder that children+chemicals+matches are a very bad idea … And yet they continued together for many years after.

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I Spy …

Look what has arrived! I’m thrilled to show you the cover for my Gothic ghost story, THE SILENT COMPANIONS, coming on 5th October 2017 from Bloomsbury.

It was designed by the wonderful David Mann and features silhouettes of key images in the book. I’m particularly glad that Jasper the cat, my favourite character, attained pride of place! Although the story is scary, I didn’t want the cover to be too dark and brooding. I think David’s design strikes just the right balance between interesting and creepy.

Even better, this is actually a ‘double’ cover. The keyhole is cut out in the card, so when you open the book there’s a portrait of my character Hetta looming behind. Watch out ….

If you are super keen, you can pre-order the hardback at Bloomsbury and on Amazon (UK) now. My American readers will have to wait for a slightly later launch date from Viking, and possibly another interesting cover… I will let you know more when I do.

Bloomsbury

By Concord - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=27472860
By Concord – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

 

Those of you who follow me on Twitter will know that I have some very good news to share! After a few months’ hard work with my agent on a new draft of The Silent Companions, we went out to to submission with publishers in August. The response was extremely positive! I was thrilled to learn of editors and their teams really getting into the book, even having nightmares about the creepy wooden figures who dominate the story. There’s something wickedly satisfying about spreading a wave of fear through your readers…

In the end we had four publishers looking to make an offer. I had the good fortune to go and meet them all in their offices before the auction started – I have to say, they were all wonderful and I was thrilled to think so many people were interested in my little book! After an exciting few days, my work finally found its perfect home with the auction winner, Alison Hennessey from Bloomsbury.

Best known for publishing the Harry Potter series, Bloomsbury won my heart with afternoon tea in their gorgeous Georgian era offices on Bedford Square. Every person I have met from the team is simply fantastic. I’m over the moon to be working with them all, particularly Alison. Other books she has worked on include Ruth Ware’s In A Dark Dark Wood and Eva Dolan’s Zigic and Ferreira series. She is launching a new imprint with Bloomsbury – the name has yet to be announced – and I am so proud to be one of its first authors. Hardback publication is scheduled for around October 2017. I will let you know when I have firm dates.

The US will be publishing slightly later, around the first months of 2018. US rights were picked up by the lovely Sarah Stein at Viking.

If that wasn’t good enough, I actually have a two book deal with Bloomsbury, so I can say with confidence you will also be able to read The Corset, another Victorian Gothic tale about a seamstress with supernatural powers. I’m working hard on this at the moment between edits. Watch this space for more news.

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Prologues

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I’ve been thinking about prologues recently – a topic that often arises in discussions about historical fiction. Are they useful? Do they just get in the way?

Personally, I never start out writing a prologue. I often add them further down the line when I start to worry my starting chapter does not have enough punch. With Queen of Bedlam, I jumped in time to show Charlotte and George toward the end of their lives in the prologue, before hopping back to the beginning of their marriage and finally to the ‘present.’ While I enjoyed writing the prologue for that book, I’ve come to think that it was probably a mistake. The jerk through time proved confusing and the prologue didn’t really add to the story. What I should have done was just focused on rewriting the opening chapter to make it more exciting. Oh well, we live and learn!

However, prologues can be useful, especially when they are in the voice of someone we will not hear from for the rest of the narrative. I have two examples of good prologues I can call to mind. Firstly, Karen Maitland’s The Gallow’s Curse. Not only is it shocking, pacey and well-written, it explains how the curse of the title comes about. The curse will later impact upon the main characters, but not in a way that they can investigate and ‘reveal’ to the reader. Therefore the prologue is essential for our information, even though the main characters may never find out about the events it shows.

My second example is from a wonderful book called The Ballroom by Anna Hope. I have to admit, when I first read it, I thought it was a bit redundant. Why is this prologue there? I thought. Surely it’s given away the ending? But no – what it had actually done was set me up to believe the book was going to end one way, when in fact something quite different was going on. It was a clever device and I was completely fooled.

In my latest book, The Silent Companions, I added a prologue in the third or fourth draft. My reasoning was that horror stories often start with a shocking death, to compensate for a slow build up of creeping dread in the opening chapters before the true action starts. As I had a character that was dead when the book began, I thought a prologue was a perfect opportunity to ‘kill’ him on the page. But actually, I didn’t need it. I started to doubt its purpose and my agent allayed my fears by telling me the opening was strong enough without it. So off the prologue went into the deleted scenes folder… And I think the book is better without it.

However, just for fun, I’d like to share the deleted prologue with you. It is not a spoiler in any way. This character is dead when the book begins – although he now dies in a very different way to the one shown below. The companions have also changed – they no longer have the plant-like creepers that chase poor Rupert. Although the story is now different, I hope this little snippet will whet your appetite for the book when it comes out :)

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Prologue

The Bridge

He thought he would have more time.

His pocket watch showed a minute to midnight. Already they stirred above him; creaking, whining, hissing. Rupert rubbed his eyes with his good hand, chasing the sleep away. Time enough for sleep soon.

A dying fire touched his surroundings with orange streaks. He must have dozed in the chair, for they had been there: the marks of them were all over the room. A pile of dead leaves and thistles rose to his ankles. His hand stung like the devil and yes – the wound was open, oozing, threaded with fresh splinters. He shuddered, imagining them peering over him while he slept. They could have taken him, easily. But that was not their method. They wanted him awake.

Rising to his feet, he waded through the leaves toward the bureau. The equipment was all there: the two bottles and his last cigar. Glass clanked as he put the bottles in his pockets. They felt like leaden weights. He closed his eyes, trying to steady his breath. The moment had come. He had to do this right – for Elsie’s sake.

He took the cigar and the stub of his candle and lit them in the embers of the fire. Tears filled his eyes, making an orange, smoky blur. Only a couple of flames remained; the light was fading fast.

Creeping to the door, he pushed it open a fraction. Listened. The relentless hiss that haunted his dreams floated down the corridor, raising gooseflesh on his arms. They were above him, without a doubt. Rupert placed one eye to the gap between the door and the jamb. The corridor lay in darkness. He had to go now.

His slippers moved across the sawdust on the landing. He had taken the room next to the nursery on purpose – it was the closest to the servants’ stairs. Jamming the cigar in his mouth, he held up his candle and opened the baize door with his bad hand. It was excruciating. A thousand needles burnt up his wrist. His fingers were heavy, stiff, creaking at the joints. If this was what one touch did, he did not want to know the agony of their embrace.

As Rupert spiralled down shallow, winding steps his candle sent shadows capering up the walls. The stairwell amplified the hiss; it was all around him, vibrating in the very air he breathed. How did the servants sleep?

He stumbled into the kitchen, exhaling a cloud of smoke. For a moment, his courage failed. The housekeeper had heard it, hadn’t she? Perhaps it was not as he feared, perhaps it was not the tricks of his own mind. But then he looked at the mangled mess of his hand and remembered.

He pushed on into the larder, trying not to think of his parents, but their images rose out of the darkness. Poor Mama, raving on the bed, her ankle splintered and torn just like his hand. Then the bandage on Father’s arm, days before he fell so tragically from the second floor. Fell. His heart reached out, down the years, finally understanding: it was no accident. Father did what needed to be done. He saw the madness coming and saved the family’s reputation.

Setting the candle down, he rattled the bottles out of his pockets. They glimmered weirdly in the low light. He’d taken all the precautions he could: complaining of stomach aches, ordering laudanum for his wound. They could trace poison now – he had to throw the coroner off the scent. If they didn’t rule his death as accidental, Elsie would lose everything.

He opened the bottle of laudanum awkwardly with one hand. Its vapid, bitter scent mingled with the cigar smoke. Then he uncorked the second bottle containing tiny arsenic grains and tipped them into the laudanum. He expected something – a fizz, a reaction. The liquid just stared back at him, dull and reddish brown.

Hiss.

His shoulders trembled. How had it come to this? All those years he had lived, never suspecting that a curse lurked deep down inside of him. It must be hereditary – a fever of the brain, passed on through blood. It had demented his mother, consumed his father; he never stood a chance.

Hiss, hiss.

He removed the cigar from his mouth and laid it on the table. This was the time to prove himself. Could he do it? As he picked up the bottle, his nostrils filled with its sharp, deadly aroma. Everything in him recoiled. He wanted life, he wanted to be with Elsie.

The glass rim touched his lip. He could taste the vapours, their dizzying pull. Still he hesitated. Her beautiful face swam before his eyes. He did not know how he would disgrace her less: as a suicide, or as a mad man.

Hiss. Creak.

He could get better. There were medicines, these days. Better treatment than his mother ever –

‘Christ!’

A bolt of pain shot up his leg, jolting him forward. His fingers slipped and nearly dropped the bottle. Hot blood oozed between his toes. He looked down.

A thick creeper wound through the open door and around his ankle, bristling with thorns. Its pointed end pierced right through his slipper, through his foot, pinning it to the ground. He went giddy. Shadows concealed the worst of the gore but he could hear his flesh, squelching and sucking as the creeper moved.

The pain. The pain. There was no time for second thoughts. In one desperate slug he forced his toxic drink down.

He grabbed the empty bottles and his cigar. It was too late to follow his plan and fill the laudanum bottle with black tea – he would have to take his chances. Gritting his teeth, he yanked his foot from the floor. The sound was worse than the agony – a sickly rip as he forced himself out of the larder and into the passage that led to the kitchen.

Barely conscious, he pulled up the loose stone in the floor and hid his empty bottles under it. That would have to do. It was bad enough there would be blood in the larder – he couldn’t risk the bottles being found.

The creeper slithered after him.

Hell and damnation. It was all going wrong. He couldn’t leave a trail of blood, he would have to clean his foot up. Limping into the kitchen, he found a muslin for boiling puddings and wrapped it around his blood-caked slipper, adding a sack on top for good measure. As he tied it he heard them creaking, creaking ever closer. Time had nearly run out.

He stubbed out his cigar. The candle was still in the larder – he would have to go back up in the dark. The idea should terrify him but he was warm, lightheaded. It would not be long before the drugs pulled him under.

He climbed the servant’s stairs as if he were treading water. His feet were heavy, too slow. Now and then he felt the creeper teasing at his heels. It could go faster if it wanted, but it liked the chase.

Just as he reached the top of the staircase, a white hot fist squeezed his gut. He gasped. That would be the arsenic. Only a little farther . . .

Hobbling across the landing, he saw their silhouettes waiting in the shadows. He swallowed the vomit that rose in his throat. They wanted him to look into their dead eyes and feel fear, but he would not do it. Soon he would never have to see them again.

He crashed into the bedroom. The spluttering fire showed a hoard of them gathered by the window. Despite their vile faces, he laughed.

‘Better . . . luck . . . next . . . time.’

Somehow he hauled himself into bed. A low whine signalled their approach. Come on, come on. He was too tired for fear, too tired for anything, but he willed the poison on with the last ounce of his strength.

Elsie . . . He wished he had written to her properly. If he’d known it would be tonight, he could have prepared. But perhaps it was best this way. She’d never know of the brain fever that took his mother, that forced his father to . . . He only prayed she’d stay away from this cursed house.

Creeak.

God, how it burned. But he would brave it out. The muscle spasms, the sweat pouring from his skin – they were his victory over them.

Through fading eyes he looked up and saw it blurred beside his bed: the figure of the little girl. Close, very close. But the warmth was flowing in now, a tide of comfort and sleep. He tried to smile – his lips would not move.

Too late. He wanted to crow, but he could only think the words as the wooden face loomed up before him. Too late.

He had won.

The Silent Companions

It’s been a busy few months on the writing front! You may remember that around Christmas time I shared some links to websites about ‘silent companions’ – historical dummy boards used as tricks of the eye. Since about September 2014 I’ve been working on a ghost story involving these creepy figures, and I finally sent the manuscript out on submission to literary agents in January 2016.

I was lucky enough to catch the interest of three wonderful agents. After meeting them all and discussing our ideas for the book, I’m delighted to say that I signed up with Juliet Mushens of United Talent Agency. Juliet is a fun and inspiring agent, a real credit to her profession, and I feel remarkably fortunate to be working with her on this.

It’s an adventure to start out in a new genre. Switching between biographical and ‘spooky’ helps to keep my mind focused and heightens my writing enjoyment. Let’s hope I can find a publisher for these new projects! At the moment I’m preparing a new draft of THE SILENT COMPANIONS, unpicking some plot lines and redoing them in a new thread. I’m also a good way into my second ghostly/spooky Victorian novel, THE CORSET. I’m very, very excited about this one and can’t wait to share it with you all.

Between these two Victorian novels and Mrs Fitzherbert, there won’t be much time for blogging, but I’ll try to drop by whenever I can and keep you updated. In the meantime, stay well and God bless.

Posted in Writing | Comments Off on The Silent Companions

Recommended Reading

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I haven’t been able to give you much to read on the blog in recent months, struggling as I am with my novels about George IV. With so many confused and confusing characters, posts have rather fallen by the wayside. However, I wanted to recommend some excellent Georgian-themed books I’ve read recently to keep you occupied while you await my next one!

The first is Ace, King, Knave by Maria McCann. I am still thinking about this book and the characters, which is always the mark of a good read. It follows three very different characters: Sophia, the well-raised daughter of a country squire; Betsy-Ann, gypsy turned prostitute turned gin dealer; and Fortunate, a slave who seems to be anything but. On the surface these three have nothing in common, but their lives are linked by one man, Ned Hartry. By turns Ned appears as the Ace, the King and the Knave but we can’t tell what he is really up to – or indeed, who will pay the price of his games.

The real beauty of this novel is voice – McCann manages to capture a trio of distinct and compelling voices that carry the plot along. I liked the Hogarthian atmosphere and the use of historical language, however the cant was perhaps a little overdone. When it’s necessary to include a whole glossary in the back of the book to explain the historical words in the story, you can’t help feeling they should have been reduced. This was the only fault I found. Some reviews on Goodreads say that they didn’t like the end of the book, but I think it was believable with just the right mix of comeuppance and tragedy. Highly recommended.

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Next, a non-fiction, and one that has been sitting on my shelf for a while. Janice Hadlow’s The Strangest Family made me so happy with its balanced and insightful view into the lives of George III and Queen Charlotte. As you know, I’m rather hard to please on this topic! I really felt that Hadlow understood Charlotte and grasped her depression – something lacking in many other biographies. What’s more, she gave a good rounded view of George III, not trying to paint him either as a saint or a tyrant, but listing his virtues alongside explanations for his faults. A particularly helpful fact was that Hadlow chose to give an indepth summary of the events leading up to George’s birth and upbringing, something often overlooked but absolutely essential to understand the man and his actions. While I didn’t love it quite as much as Flora Fraser’s Princesses, it is one of the very best books I have read on the Hanoverians.

mary-anne-daphne-du-maurierI’m currently reading Mary Anne, a novel about the mistress of Frederick, Duke of York and Albany. I was hugely excited to start this, being a massive fan of Du Maurier. I have to say, it’s not her best and feels a little disjointed. However, there are some fantastic scenes and insights into the life of a Georgian mistress. I particularly like the part of the story dealing with the young Mary Anne, a girl whose quick wits lifted her from the streets. To fully enjoy the book, I think you need to have at least a basic grasp of the period already and the celebrities of the time. It’s more one for established Georgian fans than beginners in historical fiction.

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Dukes of Cumberland Part 1 – William

Names can be a tricky thing in historical fiction. While working on Mistress of the Court, I was faced with several name-related challenges. Firstly, nearly every male character was called George. I managed to get around this by using the German version of George I’s name, Georg Ludwig, and I felt this was appropriate as his heart always remained in Hanover. A later character, George Berkeley, was simply always referred to by his surname.

Then there were the changing titles. For example, at the beginning of my narrative, Lord Chesterfield would have been called Stanhope. But with so many characters at court, I didn’t feel my readers would be able to keep up with changes like these, so I just referred to him as Chesterfield from the very start. A cheat, but I hope a forgivable one.

Titles are tricky, because so many people end up holding them. Since I research a period ranging from 1714-1837, dukedoms and earldoms change hands many times. So when I’m reading a book and they mention the Duke of York, I have to do a quick double-think to remember who it actually was at that time.

One title, however, seems to crop up a lot, and it always means trouble. The title Duke of Cumberland came to be infamous, at least for the Georgian era. In the period of my research, three different princes held the dukedom – and all three of them were scandalous in their way!

Over the next few weeks, I will give you a run down of the dastardly dukes, in chronological order.

We start with William Augustus, Duke of Cumberland, (1721-1765). William holds the distinction of being the first Hanoverian prince born on English soil. He was a precious child, a much wanted son for George II and Caroline, who had lost three babies before his birth and were separated from their only other boy.

William as a boy
William as a boy

Today we remember him as ‘Butcher’ Cumberland, due to the role he played in the battle of Culloden. This final decisive clash of the Jacobite rebellion resulted in the death of many Scots who, despite their inferior firepower, were shown no quarter. Wounded men on the battlefield were shot dead and even worse, the surrounding areas were pillaged and burnt. The King’s army were determined to show that treason would not be tolerated; raping, hanging and eradicating the Highland way of life. Great as the tragedy was, I think it is a little unfair to blame the entire thing on William. Instead of the Butcher of Culloden, I think he should be called a Butcher of Culloden – for there were certainly many other men involved in the atrocities. Indeed, William was originally hailed as a hero when he returned – it was only as details of the battle and its aftermath crept out that public opinion began to turn.

Refreshingly, when writing Mistress of the Court, I got to look at William from his doting mother’s point of view. She died some nine years before Culloden, so it could not figure in her assessment of him at all. What I found behind the soldier was a spoilt, rather precocious child of great physical courage.

Leanach Cottage, Culloden Moor
Leanach Cottage, Culloden Moor

From the start, his parents lavished attention on him. He had leather cushions for his dogs and and entire suite to himself in Hampton Court Palace. His mother took him everywhere with her, and he particularly like to throw silver coins from her carriage. His father encouraged him in a military life from an early age, giving him a troop of small boys to drill. Rather predictably, William began to get a sense of pride and answer his parents back back. He refused to fast on 30 January in remembrance of King Charles I’s death, saying he did not know that the people were wrong to execute Charles –  he hadn’t read that history book yet! But he also showed some signs of refinement, taking no food at his birthday ball because he ‘didn’t think it looked well to be pulling greasy bones about in a room full of princesses.’

It seems William was a handsome child and young man, although later on a battle wound to his leg would prevent him from exercising and make him extremely corpulent. Despite wishing to reform the army and introduce new discipline, he was not a very successful soldier. He certainly tried hard to serve his father the King, but after years of service the two quarreled. In his usual tempestuous way, George II heaped blame on William for misunderstanding his orders and greeted his son with the words, ‘Here is my son who has ruined me and disgraced himself, ruined his country and his army, has spoiled everything and lost his own reputation.’ Having become very familiar with George II’s furious tirades, I must say I admire the way William responded to the outburst. He very calmly told the King’s mistress that he was tendering his resignation. When George II inevitably calmed down later and tried to make amends, William was firm. He would always show the greatest respect for his father the King, but he would never again serve under him as a soldier.

Soldier William
Soldier William

William’s career therefore ended at the age of thirty-eight. It was just as well, for in the coming years he fell prey to a series of strokes that left him partially paralysed. He amused himself by following horseracing and boxing and throwing himself into the office of Ranger of Windsor Forest. He constructed Virginia Water and a private zoo.

Whilst William had a few brief mistresses, there was no lasting romantic attachment in his life. He never married, living instead with his sister Emily (Amelia). After his elder brother’s death in 1751, William tried to gain influence with and advise his nephew the future King George III. However, George and his mother Augusta distrusted William, seeming to see him as another Richard III.

The old battle wound on William’s thigh continued to trouble his health. With more strokes and complications caused by his corpulence, he was not long for the world. He died aged only 44, in his chair – not the glorious end on a battlefield he might have envisaged for himself. But though his life was short and not, after childhood, particularly happy, the reputation he had earned in the Jacobite rebellion would see him go down in history as one of the great villains.

William in later years
William in later years

 

The Penny Heart

24378570It was perhaps inevitable that I would love Martine Bailey’s second novel, The Penny Heart. I was a huge fan of her debut, An Appetite for Violets and once again she has returned to my beloved Georgian period. What makes The Penny Heart even more exciting is the Gothic world in which it immerses the reader. In a nod to the popular novelists of the era, Bailey creates a neglected old house with dark secrets to unearth.

There are two heroines to this story. The first we meet is the indomitable Mary Jebb, a flame-haired beauty working the Manchester streets as part of a criminal gang. Alone in the world and reliant on her own resources, Mary soon realises she does not want to become a prostitute like the other poor drabs at her lodging house. Using her talent for crafting sweetmeats, she charms herself into the graces of the forger Charlie and becomes involved in his operations. However, when she is caught in a confidence trick, she soon learns that her friends are powerless to protect her. The gentleman she tried to defraud, Michael Croxon, gives a powerful testimony against her and she is sentenced to death. At the very last moment, Mary’s life is saved. But is it really a reprieve? When Mary learns she is being sent to the penal colony of Botany Bay due to a ‘shortage of women’ she begins to suspect her trials are just beginning.

When we next meet Mary, she is back home in England. With forged papers from her friends, she is trying to start a new life as a housekeeper, under the name of Peg Blissett, at Delafosse Hall. Her mistress is our second heroine, the new Mrs Grace Croxon.

I found the character of Grace compelling and extremely sympathetic. Bailey has done an excellent job of making her a woman of her time, whilst giving her just enough spirit to get the reader onside. Grace has lived a sheltered life after the death of her mother, trying to care for her drunken father. When her best friend marries and her father chases her sweetheart away, she realises the true misery of her situation. It is no surprise that when the opportunity to marry the handsome Michael comes along, with her father’s blessing, she is eager to take it. Like many women of the era, Grace is aware that Michael’s primary interest is the money she will bring to the marriage. But although she feels gauche and inexperienced in his presence, she trusts that love will come in time.

Despite these happy auspices, the union proves difficult. Grace’s marital home is the stately but dilapidated Delafosse Hall; uncomfortable, low on staff and positioned in the middle of nowhere. Local gentry do not come to call and her husband is more interested in his business and the local tavern than her company. Left alone, Grace begins to find strange rooms and stories about the house. Every detail of Delafosse is vividly created, from its winding passages to the overgrown trees that tap against the window panes. We begin to share Grace’s curiosity as she explores and gains a strange affection for the old place.

Deprived of friends, Grace becomes intimate with her servants. Peg Blissett, the confident and knowledgeable housekeeper, is just the companion Grace needs to combat her own timidity. With Peg’s help, she sets out to win her husband’s love with money, sumptuous apartments, fine food and a wardrobe full of fashionable clothes. Although she succeeds, Grace begins to suspect she has been foolish and allowed her servant too much freedom. Moreover, she is not sure that Peg is altogether what she seems . . .

The narrative switches between the two women as we sense a deadly trap closing about Grace. We do not know what Peg intends, but is clear from her narration that Grace is the object of her latest fraud. . .

Peg/Mary was a fascinating and skillfully drawn character. Through flashbacks, we begin to discover what she endured in the years at Botany Bay and how she arrived home. Teased out with perfect precision, the story reveals a more tortured and yet sympathetic character with every scene. Bailey balances condemnation with a brilliant pathos that really strikes at the heart of this woman and her need for revenge. While she is by no means a nice person, Peg’s reactions are believable given the life she has endured. And perhaps it’s just me, but I couldn’t help rooting for her a little – even if her plans were evil. She is one of those characters you just love to hate.

Through Peg, we encounter a variety of Georgian cant and get a behind-the-scenes glimpse of the criminal underworld. We sit on the dirty tumbrel to the gallows, we blister beneath the Australian sun. We also have a taste of some more period recipes, which was such a great feature of An Appetite for Violets. But Peg being Peg, these recipes have a dark twist, with many intended for nefarious means and others used to cheat customers out of money.

While both Grace and Peg are wonderful characters, it is clear that only one can survive. As the story begins to unravel, the women realise how they have underestimated each other. It all comes down to a thrilling battle of wits and nerve – I literally could not put the book down for the last quarter!

I would highly recommend The Penny Heart for a historic, disturbing and wonderfully exciting read!

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