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Tuesday, 8 November 2011

Polly's Story by Jennie Walters

The ‘Swallowcliffe Hall’ trilogy: ‘Polly’s Story’, ‘Grace’s Story’, ‘Isobel’s Story’

It was dates that inspired me to write my three ‘Swallowcliffe Hall’ books. I suddenly realized that a young Victorian girl could have had a daughter of that age in 1914, on the brink of the First World War, and a grand-daughter her age in 1939, on the eve of the Second. So there was the timeline for my three novels: these fascinating periods of history. I decided to root the stories in a grand old English country house, large enough to accommodate an army of servants besides the aristocratic family who’ve lived there for generations. I wanted the house to become another character, regarded in a very different light by each of my three heroines. Polly, who comes to the house as under-housemaid in 1890, wants nothing more than to stay there and serve the Vye family for the rest of her life. Her daughter Grace, a reluctant kitchenmaid, is stifled and suffocated by the Hall; she manages to find work in the stables when the male servants go off to fight in the war, but still feels the restrictions of servant life – especially when she falls in love with a member of the Vye family, and he with her. And although Grace is determined her own daughter, Isobel, will have nothing to do with Swallowcliffe, she has no choice but to send her there to convalesce after a bout of TB in 1939, when the country is on the brink of war. Isobel is captivated by the Hall’s crumbling beauty and the chance of sanctuary it provides for Jewish refugees from Nazi Europe.

Each girl’s reaction to the house and to the world of service gave me a clue into her character, a starting point to examine all sorts of other thoughts and emotions. I became fascinated by the way in which the world changed between 1890 and 1939, all in the lifetime of my first heroine, and realized my own grandmother had lived through the same tumultuous time. If only I could have asked her about it! I also loved finding out about the strict code that governed the servants’ hall in a big country house: the upper servants departing to take their pudding in the housekeeper’s parlour, the under-housemaids who were only allowed to dust the legs of drawing-room furniture rather than the surface, the condescending ‘Rules for the manners of servants in good families’: do not smile at droll stories told at the table, do not enter into conversation with your mistress, give any information required in as few words as possible. ‘Downton Abbey’ has its appeal, but it’s just as well those days have gone and we’re living in more open, fairer times today.

For a wealth of background information into the stories, including original photographs, extracts from servants’ letters, and much more, visit

where you can also purchase the book as an e-book or in print


julietgreenwoodauthor said...


My grandmother was a cook in a big house, and I wish I could have known her to ask her about it. I'm looking forward to reading these. It was such a huge period of change, especially for women and girls. Youngsters need the Downton factor, too!


Jennie Walters said...

How interesting, Juliet! I became fascinated by Victorian kitchens after being given the book, 'The Victorian Kitchen' by Jennifer Davies - it's o/p but I think you can get it secondhand, and it's a mine of information. Yes, there are so many questions I wish I'd asked my grandmother, too. Thanks for your comment.

Ann Turnbull said...

I read these stories when they first came out, and enjoyed them very much. I would recommend reading them in the right order, by the way.

Eliza Graham said...

Yes, it's extraordinary to think of a family with generations working like that: one just in time for WW1, the next for WW2. I've often thought how unfair that must have felt to families: going through all that anguish twice.

I would be so useless at not smiling at the droll stories.

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