Vivian French shares her reasons for writing The Runaways of Haddington Hall and where some of her inspirations came from. This is an enjoyable step into the shoes of an inspiring author!
My grandmother was born in 1887, and I’ve always been fascinated by what life must have been like then. Queen Victoria was on the throne, the streets were full of horses and carriages, and Robert Louis Stevenson was busy writing The Master of Ballantrae – and my grandmother’s father was the captain of a ship that regularly sailed from London to Australia. (A real sailing ship, with more than a dozen sails,)
So… over the years I’ve read a lot about the Victorian era, but it’s taken me a long time to set a story there. The first Victorian book I wrote was The Steam Whistle Theatre Company, and I was in danger of putting much too much historical detail in – just because you’ve found a lot of facts doesn’t mean you have to inflict them on your readers! So I weeded out a lot, but I was sad that one of the things I had to lose was the way that Victorians washed their clothes… or, rather, didn’t – because they got washerwomen to do it for them. Washing clothes took up a lot of space, and very many houses and apartments just didn’t have room for a huge copper tub, a massive mangle, and a drying rack. (The iron mangles were things of beauty! I had one once, and I loved it… but it was so heavy I had to leave it behind when I moved.)
Washerwomen, plus mangles, and an interest in Victorian cheats and scoundrels (like the vile Olio Sleevery in Steam Whistle) all combined to make me want to write The Runaways of Haddington Hall. Minnie was the first character to appear; she has red hair because my grandmother did… and my gran was a feisty person, just like Minnie. I wanted Edith to be a contrast to Minnie; one of the things that always strikes me when I read about Victorian children is the huge gap between rich and poor, and I wanted to make that very clear. Enry is a wave to Charles Dickens; his character Joe, the crossing sweeper, made a lasting impression on me as a child… but Enry is much luckier than poor Joe.
I spent a lot of time investigating philanthropy, and how Victorian philanthropists weren’t always as noble as they might at first appear. I was thrilled to discover a newspaper report about a ‘most respectable matron’ who had set up a small charity to support ‘girls from an unfortunate background’ and who used nearly all the money she was given to buy clothes and jewellery for herself. She was even worse than Mrs Haddington; she sent her girls off to Canada, where they were forced to work on farms or in factories in the most appalling conditions. Luckily she was found out… but I don’t think the girls were ever rescued.
When I lived in Bristol we often used to go to Bath, and I loved the stories of all the different people who came to take the waters in the hope of improving their health. Of course pickpockets, thieves and swindlers were attracted there too; if you were rich enough to pay to drink water for health reasons, you must be worth robbing. Obadiah Marpike is loosely based on a real character who was (finally) arrested for persuading elderly ladies to allow him to invest their money in – guess what? – ruby mines. (The Victorians adored rubies… that lovely rich red glow!)
I invented Middleminster (just like I invented Uncaster in Steam Whistle). It saves a lot of arguments with people who want to correct my geography – although I did once meet a child who insisted her aunt lived in Uncaster, and that she’d been to visit her there. I do make myself a rough map, so I know which way my characters ought to go… sometimes it gets very complicated, and I have to invent a short cut. Getting characters to the right place at the right time can be a problem for me; poor Enry had to do a lot of very speedy running to catch up with Minnie. (I made my grandson run the same distance to make sure it could be done. I am a heartless grandmother when it comes to checking information.)*
Bad characters are, on the whole, much more fun to write about than good characters… but Runaways was a little different for me. I think my favourite character is Mam, and she’s definitely one of the good ones. She doesn’t make much of an appearance, but she’s at the heart of the story… her solid work ethic and honesty the antithesis of Honoria Haddington.
The Runaways of Haddington Hall wasn’t the easiest book to write, but I grew to love the characters… especially Mam, Minnie, Edith and Enry.
I hope you do too.
* I took him out to lunch afterwards.
The Runaways of Haddington Hall is published by Walker Books and available now from your favourite book shops!