Nicola Slade had her first short stories published in her early twenties and wrote for children and for women’s magazines for a number of years. As well as writing, Nicola has been a Brown Owl and an antiques dealer. She currently lives in Hampshire with her husband; her three grown-up children live nearby.
Here, Nicola talks about what inspired the story and why location was so very integral to her tale….
If you visit Winchester and go to see the famous Round Table, as you certainly should, you will find an interesting little piece of history by opening a small door inside the echoing Norman Great Hall. Queen Eleanor’s Garden is a recreation of a mediaeval garden of the time of Queen Eleanor of Provence, wife of Henry III, daughter-in-law of King John. This little garden is planted only with plants that were known in the Middle Ages and tucked into its tiny area are a vine tunnel, a grass seat, a fountain and a little stream, as well as herbs, berries, and early roses. The garden was opened in 1986 by the Queen Mother and it’s an oasis of quiet in a busy city. (For more information, click here).
When I came to think about the third adventure for my resourceful young Victorian widow, Charlotte, the mediaeval garden immediately sprang to mind. It didn’t matter that I was writing about 1858 and the garden was a late twentieth century creation, I could fudge that. However, it really is very small and I needed a much larger space where I could hide a corpse or two. So I did the next best thing: I invented my own version.
Charlotte’s first two adventures took place in spring 1858 and August/September of the same year and, as I didn’t want to leave her too long without being thrown into another perilous situation (I’m all heart), Christmas loomed large – and with it, all the fun of the festive season. Sadly, an unfortunate death in the house meant that the celebrations had to be muted but I had fun with an ill-assorted house party, including two guests in deepest mourning, while Charlotte found herself pursued by a determined widower, and by Florence Nightingale who tempts her with an interesting offer.
A quiet Christmas didn’t give me much scope for jollity, though the book begins with a christening party complete with a wassail bowl, but what I did have fun with was researching the clothes and assorted ailments. Last year I haunted the Oxfam Bookshop in Winchester, wondering whether I could justify spending £40 on a book. I did, of course, and it’s fabulous: ‘English Women’s Clothing in the Nineteenth Century’. Every single year is marked by a brief history, but it’s history as reflected in women’s clothing. 1854’s entry is: ‘The Crimean War, beginning in February of that year, influenced the current fashions in characteristic ways…’ (lots of Turkish influences). This is followed by descriptions of cloaks, shawls, bonnets, day dresses, sleeves….
I researched the ailments via ‘The Family Health Book’ which is a little late for my period, at 1892, but covered the topic pretty comprehensively. There’s a scary diagram illustrating the evils of tight-lacing your corset and an endorsement for hearty eating by instancing Goethe whose appetite was ‘immense’ and who lived into his eighties.
An interesting research trip was to The Poison Garden at Alnwick Castle in Northumberland. I was asking about which plants would kill you more effectively when the friend I was with hustled me outside, insisting that the curator was eyeing us suspiciously. Later on, my younger daughter gave me the perfect Mother’s Day present in the shape of ‘The Arsenic Century: How Victorian Britain was Poisoned at Home, Work & Play’. (She knows how to please her mum, that girl….)
I had an editorial query about the flowers Charlotte finds in the woods on Christmas Day – ‘Primroses? With snow on the ground?’ I happily altered it, realizing that most of the UK is not like this sheltered part of the south, where it’s no novelty to find primroses, violets or even a foolhardy rose out in flower in mid-winter. Snow on the ground on Christmas Day however – well, that’s something I’ve never seen!
It’s an action-packed week for Charlotte, encompassing amusement, fear, annoyance, tragedy, affection, grief and melodrama. The book ends on 1st January 1859 which just so happens to be Charlotte’s twenty-fifth birthday.
– Nicola Slade