It is a joy to welcome award winning author, Maggie Richell-Davies back to the blog today to learn about her female centred novel, The Servant, set in eighteenth century England.
As a book-mad teenager, Elizabeth Bennett and Jane Eyre became my heroines, while Fitzwilliam Darcy and Mr Rochester made my heart flutter. Jane Austen and Emily Brontë’s brilliant writing made Middle England feel reassuringly familiar. Yet it struck me even then that the lives of the female working poor were largely unseen. If you came across a maidservant, she was laying out a muslin gown or serving a dish of tea. Where were the cooks, the child-minders and the scrub-women? What about their stories?
Then I discovered London’s Foundling Hospital Museum and learned the sad truth about some of them. In the 1720’s William Coram, a sea captain, came back from America to enjoy his retirement in London. Instead, he was horrified to see babies lying abandoned in the city’s gutters and on its dung heaps. Unlike the continent, with its convents, there was nowhere a desperate mother could take an infant for whom she could provide no home.
Coram became a man with an obsession. It took him an incredible seventeen years, but he finally raised the funds to provide these babies with a future their unfortunate mothers could not.
Founded by Royal Charter in 1739, the London Foundling Hospital came into existence. That Coram eventually succeeded was due to his approaching a group of ladies of high rank, headed by the Duchess of Somerset. Their sixteen signatures on The Ladies Petition presented to George III in 1735 made the vital difference. A cynic might well wonder if these women of standing and sophistication felt guilt for the less-than-noble activities of husbands, brothers and sons.
Many of the Foundling Hospital’s admissions came from the poorest parishes, but their records show that ‘considerable numbers’ came from St James Westminster and St George Hanover Square, parishes with large households employing many servants. Taken with the fine clothing and hand-made identifying tokens left with some of the infants (in the hope they might, one day, be reclaimed), this suggests a number were either the offspring of women of high social status – or of those employed by them. A tiny square of silk, exquisitely embroidered with my own initials – MD – suggesting the downfall of a lady’s maid rather than some illiterate girl from the slums.
Service offered the opportunity of rising from being the maid who emptied the chamber pots to being a valued cook or housekeeper, but since employers did not want the inconvenience of children, these women were not permitted to marry. Pregnancy earned them the sack, even if the father was a member of the household. A servant’s opportunity also carried risk.
For even in reputable households there could be importunate footmen or predatory masters. An extract from the diary of Dr Johnson’s friend, Boswell, acknowledges the hurt a wife might feel at a husband’s infidelity, yet is callously indifferent towards the servant whose body was seen as a convenience to slake her master’s lust:
“…if, for instance, from wantonness of appetite, he steals privately to her chambermaid, a wife ought not greatly to resent this.”
The sexual exploitation of women by their employers is nothing new, but at least today even powerful men can be called to account for what they do. In the 18th century the great and supposedly-good not only did what they wanted, but got away with it.
London could be a brutal place. The country was ruled by men, for men, with poor women at the bottom of the heap. The women who took their infants to the Foundling Hospital were largely homeless or desperately poor and lived in a society with no social safety net. Without a family to support her, a woman with a baby could not work. If her child was illegitimate, she could be turned away from the door of the poor house for being a prostitute.
Yet some women like my young heroine, Hannah, could be resilient. These were not Austen or Brontë heroines, but women whose only help came from other women as disadvantaged as themselves. Hannah finds strength and friendship from Peg, a disabled and starving scrub-woman, from a downtrodden innkeeper’s wife and from Nellie, a pipe-smoking, gin-sodden child minder.
The Servant is a historical thriller with dark themes, but with a compensating love story threading through it. Its heroine is the daughter of a Spitalfields weaver who falls on hard times and ends up in the house of a disgraced and debauched aristocrat, with a wife who is the stuff of nightmares. Hannah’s one advantage is that she can read, and it is using her education that enables her to win through and find a happier life.
I could have written a different book, but wanted to shine a light on lives rarely examined. That of women with darned stockings and blistered fingers. Many of whom might well have been our own great-great-great grandmothers.
There are people who think history dull. I am not one of them. Do let me know if you agree – and if you are within reach of London I urge you to visit the Foundling Museum in Bloomsbury. It will open your eyes.
Born in Northumberland, but raised in London, Maggie has been a PA to men in public life, a U.N. wife in Africa and Peru, and sold advertising space in San Francisco for three years. She writes as Maggie Richell-Davies and has published a number of short stories.
In 2020 The Historical Writers’ Association ran a competition to find a new writer of historical fiction and Maggie’s thriller The Servant –
set in the dark underbelly of 18th century London – won the award, a generous cheque and a publishing contract with Sharpe Books. The novel is available from Amazon at £1.99 for the eBook, £7.99 for the paperback, or free to read on Kindle Unlimited.
The Servant: www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B087N8H9PB
Maggie’s blog: maggiedaviesiswriting.com
Writing Group: ninevoices.wordpress.com
5 Star Reviews:
“This book broke my heart and put it back together at the end.”
“I defy anyone to start this and not need to know how it ends.”
“A truly fabulous, atmospheric read.”
“Books that make me cry will always be rated five stars and, considering I read the last eight chapters through a film of tears, I think this book absolutely meets that criteria.”
“This book gripped me from the very first page to the last…a story that lives in the mind long after the book is finished. I highly recommend it, not just for readers of historical fiction, but for anyone interested in the human spirit and what it can bear.”
“I couldn’t put this book down.”