Julia used to be a regular blogger with GHB and we’re delighted to welcome her back with a fantastic blog about her brand new book NANCY PARKER’S SPOOKY SPECULATIONS, the second in the exciting Nancy Parker detective series!
A Lowly Housemaid with Daring Dreams!
by Julia Lee
It’s lovely to be back at Girls Heart Books to tell you about my new book which is out this month: Nancy Parker’s Spooky Speculations, No. 2 in my series about a 1920s housemaid with ambitions to be a detective. And quite by chance (!!!) all the jobs she takes give her an opportunity to investigate suspicious behaviour, and even foil a crime or two.
The Nancy Parker books are light-hearted mysteries, but when I look at why I created a housemaid heroine, it’s quite complicated and maybe a little more serious. Here are some of the ideas that fed into my thinking:
*In just about every classic children’s book that I loved – ‘Five Children & It’, ‘The Secret Garden’, the Just William stories – there were servants. But they weren’t ever the main characters. The point of view was always from the kind of people who naturally depended on servants. Even when these families were down on their luck they still hung on to a maid or two, as if it was simply impossible to cook or clean for themselves.
*Servants were often the butt of the jokes. Think how many parlour-maids and gardeners William Brown confused or enraged. (Not that I didn’t laugh.)
*Sometimes a dramatic reversal of fortune meant a pampered child had to become a servant. But they always started out in privileged position, not as someone with no other options. And the happy ending returned them to a position of comfort. They learned things on the way, but what I learned as a reader was that theirs was the default story arc. Being working class was neither interesting or normal.
*When we look back at more ‘gracious’ eras in books and on screen we fantasise about the luxurious life, completely forgetting that – statistically – most of us would have been at the sharp end rather than the comfortable one.
*In the 1890s 41% of the female workforce were servants. The Great War changed all that. A wider range of jobs were open to women which, though still tough, gave them more money and freedom. Yet in 1931 almost a quarter of working women and girls were still in service.
*Nancy’s story begins in 1920, when the school-leaving age had just gone up from 13 to 14. Imagine leaving school on your 14th birthday, as Nancy does, and having to take any work you can get? You’re not trained or qualified for anything and you may have to leave home and take a live-in job. Your family desperately need your wages to get by, so even if you’re deemed clever enough to stay on for more schooling you can’t afford to. This was a really common scenario.
*The 1920s saw in the Golden Age of English crime writing. Agatha Christie was the queen of the genre and even A.A. Milne tried his hand at a detective novel before his success with Winnie The Pooh. The amateur detectives in these stories all have the money and time, and the social contacts, to investigate mysteries. I have to confess I’ve slipped a few of their ideas into Nancy’s adventures! But to modern-day readers the attitude to servants in these books appears quite patronising. Mostly their role is to be dim, daft, terrible gossips and unreliable witnesses.
*And – here’s the crux – think how brilliant a servant’s position is for investigating! They might have lacked education but they weren’t stupid. Behind the scenes is their natural territory. It’s their job to tidy writing desks, empty wastepaper baskets, clear away dishes, take the post and show visitors in and out, and wait at table, poker-faced, while their employers chatter away. How much evidence might pass through their hands? How many secrets do they overhear?
That’s where my idea began. The 1920s were a time of great social change. Nancy has a loving home: her dad works in a biscuit factory, her Aunty Bee is a bus conductress. Grandma is a typical Victorian with old-school ideas about ‘knowing your place’, while Nancy embraces the 20th century – short hair, short hems, motor cars and moving pictures! She’s stuck as a housemaid for now, but she dares to dream big dreams.
Nancy Parker’s Spooky Speculations by Julia Lee, illustrated by Chloe Bonfield (Oxford). Nancy’s new job is in a big lonely house by the sea. While her eccentric employer is busy filling the ornamental gardens with rescued donkeys, Nancy worries about spooky thumps and bumps indoors that only she seems to hear. Time to call in her old sidekick, Ella Otter, and begin another investigation.