Since I read Katherine by Anya Seton in my early teens I have had a lifelong love of historical fiction so it seemed natural when I started writing nine years ago to set my stories in the past.
I chose the Victorian period as it reflects many of the concerns and issues, such as the introduction of new technology, the impact of scientific and medical advances on society, that we have today. It was also a period when centuries of long-held beliefs were being questioned. Slavery was abolished, Catholics were emancipated, philanthropists pressured successive governments to improve the working conditions of the poor, and women started to challenge the male preserves of education, politics and the professions.
East London, where I was born is a very special place for me and as a fifth generation Cockney I wanted to bring the story of my own ancestors who lived in the vibrant, poverty stricken dockland area to life. My first novel, No Cure for Love, was set in Whitechapel 1832 during a cholera epidemic. The hero was Doctor Robert Munroe, who battled to improve the plight of the poor and the heroine was Ellen O Casey, an Irish pub singer desperately trying to scrape together the passage money to take her family to New York.
My second book, A Glimpse at Happiness, continued the story when Josie O’Casey, Ellen’s daughter, returns to England twelve years later in 1844 and my latest, Perhaps Tomorrow, the third in the Wapping series, is set three years after that. The idea for Mattie’s story in Perhaps Tomorrow came to me as I was writing A Glimpse at Happiness as I felt she needed a handsome hero of her own. All the books are linked but can be read as stand-alone stories.
Mattie is a widow struggling to keep the family coal business solvent and herself and her family out of the workhouse -which, in a time before the welfare state, was a plight many women found themselves in. The situation was made even more difficult by the fact that women weren’t allowed to own property, operate bank accounts or have dealings with commerce of any kind. Of course, there were always women who fought against the odds and built business empires but they had to work doubly hard to succeed.
And for the women who went before us the daily grind was back-breaking. The day started before dawn when you had to rake the ash from the grate and light the fire before drawing your water from a stand pipe in the backyard. You physically did the washing and scrubbed the floor. Before stainless steel you had to keep you baking dishes clean by scrubbing them with sand. There was a constant battle to keep bed-bugs, cockroaches and head lice at bay, not to mention the mice and rats. In addition to this they had to cope with often a yearly round of pregnancy and the dangers of childbirth but surely the most heart-breaking part of their life must have been coping with the loss of a child which almost every mother in the 19th century would have experienced.
Although Perhaps Tomorrow is a fictitious work I have trawled through research papers and contemporary diaries to bring women’s everyday experiences to life. After reading contemporary accounts of their lives I couldn’t help but admire the hundreds of unnamed women, our great-great-great grandmothers in fact, who worked every hour God gave them to put food on the table and keep a roof over their family’s heads. I hope that my book sheds light on their stories and, in a small way, honours their struggles.