came out in July, and ever since I’ve had people ask me - So it’s true? Well, how much of it is true? Of course I’d argue that nothing ever is. Especially when we’re talking about Mary Wilcocks/Wilcox/Baker, aka the Princess Caraboo. Hers is one of those stories you really couldn’t make up. I cherry-picked some of the details of her life, squished them into a condensed form and gussied some things up a bit, but the fundamentals are based on fact: here was a girl, lost and alone, who made things up to get out of a sticky situation and ended up painting herself into a corner.
The fundamental truth is that for a working class woman – whatever her colour* – any kind of opportunities were few and far between. You were a daughter, a wife and/or a mother. Survival meant hitching yourself to a man; if you fell pregnant outside marriage you were ruined, soiled goods, and with only widows able to have any kind of legal autonomy, a woman’s life was hard as flint. And a woman of colour was truly at the bottom of any pile.
Class, race and sex were straitjackets. Mary, as Caraboo, broke all the bounds of Regency society.
Her ‘real’ story is very slippery. I used John Wells’ biography Princess Caraboo, Her True Story as the spine of my book. (He wrote the script of the 1987 film Princess Caraboo which I still haven’t seen.) It really is worth a read; he treats her kindly, gets under the skin of a girl who was pregnant and abandoned, and when her baby was in the Foundling Hospital, got work in Islington in order that she could visit the baby every week until he died at six months.
She was obviously and clearly a fabulist, someone who bent the truth to fit, and as John Wells discovers, she was telling tales long before she came first to Exeter and then to London to work as nanny in her teens. She was one of those girls who can’t wait for adventure, who runs joyfully forward into life, who runs away from home in Devon as a child and swims in rivers, shins up trees to see further, tries to inspire her little sister with wild games and stories.
And at first the city didn’t disappoint. She worked for a family in Kennington whose neighbours were Orthodox Jews and she loved the praying and the language and eventually got the sack for taking the day off to go to a Jewish wedding. She might have married – or just taken Mr Baker’s name, but he didn’t hang around.
And there is evidence of some kind of early brain surgery: scars at the top of her neck under her hairline, probably carried out (in 1810s! it doesn’t bear thinking about!) in the biggest, grimmest workhouse in London which used to be approximately on the site of the National Gallery.
There are more adventures – most of which involve dressing up or pretence, pretending to beg while foreign, maybe even a trip to France with a husband? The elusive Mr Baker or someone else? Then travel to Bristol, where on the edge of the city she fell down on the road. As you can see, much had happened to her before she met Mrs Worrall – who was, as in my book, an American married to a banker, massively interested in ‘savages’ and exotica. Mrs Worrall and Mary were made for each other. I think they both wished her into existence.
Caraboo’s story is so of the time. It couldn’t have happened without Mrs Worrall, without the beginning of a literate working class, and the beginning of the mass media. The newspapers made her story well known all over the country; there were poems, articles, books and paintings. And the newspapers’ readers were mostly on Caraboo’s side. She had fooled the rich and wealthy, she was a beautiful young woman and she had – almost – got away with it!
John Wells tells us that he thinks the relationship between Mrs Worrall and Mary was much deeper and closer than the newspapers would have us believe. The real Mrs Worrall, who was daughterless, must in some way have loved her, and Mary, somehow, loved her back. Even after Mrs Worrall paid for Mary’s travel to America to ‘start a new life’ the pair exchanged letters for years.
And although in my story Mary does make a new life for herself in the States, in real life her attempts to tour theatres and ‘cash in’ on her celebrity as a fake Princess fell flat. America after all was full of people who’d escaped lowly origins and re-invented themselves as something else. She came back to Britain and dropped out of sight.
She ended her days in Bristol; she died a successful, independent businesswoman selling medicinal leeches. John Wells likes to think she got back together with Mr Baker, and whoever he was, whatever the truth was, she kept his name. She had a daughter and she was comfortable. I think that’s possibly the happiest end anyone, even Mary herself, could have imagined.
* Mary could have been from any kind of background, she could have been merely darkly tanned, or she could have been mixed race. Black people existed in and outside of London at this time. It should be remembered, for example, that the leader of the Truro Orchestra at this time was Joseph Emidy, an African married to a local Falmouth girl.
Horatio Clare gave a great speech that was both impassioned and personal, talking about the book and writing about depression.
The illustrator, Jane Matthews, was also there, and was praised for her clever and subtle illustrations which work incredibly well with the text.
It was conducted in the way that a great Book Launch should be – with lots of wine, chatting and book-buying. A great evening and a great book.
Just to let you know a little more about the author … Horatio Clare is a journalist who has previously published books for adults, including Running for the Hills, which won the Somerset Maugham Award, and Down to the Sea in Ships.
Aubrey and the Terrible Yoot is reviewed over on the Junior page.
For the book review visit our Junior pages but in the meantime read this fascinating interview with thanks to reviewer Gill Vickery.
How did you get the idea for The House of Eyes?
I've always been fascinated by stories of long-missing relatives returning unexpectedly – to the wife, in the sixteenth-century case of Martin Guerre, and to claim a title and a fortune in the Tichborne Claimant case of the mid-nineteenth century. Were they imposters, or not? Then a while ago I saw a documentary in the cinema about an American boy, who had gone missing as a young teenager, was 'found' and returned to his family. What particularly interested me was how the family were determined to believe he was who he said he was, even though the evidence was to the contrary and from interviews they quite clearly knew this.
What led you to return to classic children’s fiction with a middle grade historical adventure story set in Edwardian England?
Initially I was planning to write another YA Victorian 'Gothic', just as my last, The Devil in the Corner, had been, but there seemed to be so many children's books about Victorian England at the time that it gradually evolved from something that I'd conceived of as quite dark, into a MG novel set in the Edwardian period; and because it was a time of great confidence and optimism, I wanted the novel to reflect that lightness. My protagonist is only twelve and the action is seen through her eyes, so the narrative voice became much jauntier, reflecting her character. However, I altered the bones of my original plot very little.
I was interested in how you brought to life the concerns of the age, particularly burgeoning women’s emancipation and the hurly burly of Suffragist rallies. The teenage suffragette, Lavender, is an exuberant and supremely confident character. Is she based on any particular, real life suffragette?
No, although the Suffragette movement attracted quite a few young women from London's society circles. It must have seemed glamorous and 'cool' in its early stages. Lavender is a self-assured product of her upper-class background. She marched into the pages of the novel unexpectedly when I was describing the Suffragettes invading Fuller's during afternoon tea (this actually happened), and then I thought how useful she would be in rescuing Connie from the various scrapes she gets into.
Other concerns of this era that you write about include: Spiritualism, Science, Education and the strict social hierarchy. Did you set out to include these or did they arise naturally as you wrote?
The plot did call for them from the start, but perhaps I didn't realise to what extent until I started writing. In fact, this wasn't the great age of Spiritualism – that was slightly before and certainly just after the First World War, but I needed to bring in séances for my story to work. Ditto the other concerns. Juliet Nicolson's The Perfect Summer, although it's about the year 1911, gives a delightful overview of society at that time, and among other books, for a very accessible introduction to the Edwardian period, I found Evangeline Holland's Edwardian England useful. Roy Hattersley's The Edwardians is the classic and covers just about everything.
I noticed a certain amount of historical product placement such as Elizabeth Arden’s Orange Skin Food. How did you go about researching this?
The Internet has some good historical beauty sites – but I remember vividly as a small child watching my grandmother (who had perfect skin!) patting Orange Skin Food, with its delicious smell, on her face and telling me that her mother had always used it (before the First World War). I loved doing the research for this book – everything from fashions to the songs Arthur plays at the garden party, which were all popular in the year of The House of Eyes (1909).
I enjoyed the car chase enormously – apart from its Penelope Pitstop excitement it really brings home the thrill of new technology and the exhilaration of the freedoms it brought with it. Did you have to do any hands on research into veteran/vintage cars?
I based Lavender's car on a 1909 Silver Ghost, but I haven't actually sat in one. I'd also seen old photographs of the dreadful traffic jams in London, with motorcars, horse-drawn vehicles and wagons all competing (with no traffic lights or road markings, of course). The rest was imagination.
There are also sly, tongue in cheek references, to literary celebrities of the period: [p.148]: Bernard Shaw is interested in the supposed young Ida’s Cockney accent, Conan Doyle is intrigued by the story of a mysterious disappearance many years before. Did you enjoy writing these?
Loved it! I was careful to make sure they would have been moving in society circles at that time. Ida is an Eliza Doolittle character, of course (a couple of years before Pygmalion) – her transformation from orphan girl to debutante, while still retaining her robust attitude to life, was great fun to write.
It was very important to me to find a house that might have been the House of Eyes. I tried Bloomsbury first, as it was near the British Museum, which Connie loves so much – and then I tramped round South Kensington. In Brompton I found a house that seemed right: it looked somehow crudely built even though, like all the other houses in that area now, it was immaculately stuccoed and would sell for millions at today's prices (I looked up an estate agent's website!). When I then researched the street, which was actually called Alfred Place West in Connie's time, I discovered that several of the houses had fallen down shortly after construction – over-hasty building and still-wet plaster were blamed. That seemed an extraordinary coincidence. (Connie is haunted by the 'eyes' in the damp patches of the house)! Also, the house was very near Thurloe Square, which seemed an ideal setting for the garden party at the climax of the book. I found old plans of Thurloe Square – its layout has changed little, although a lot of the evergreens have gone.
Fulham Road and the streets that are mentioned off it are all still there, though they are paved now, of course, and the houses have all been 'gentrified'. But parts of it were very seedy then. You can see those areas marked in old plans on the Internet that show wealthier and poorer streets. There is a lot about Fulham Town Hall on the Internet, too, though in fact I went there for a civil wedding while I was writing the novel, which was useful! I found London in the Twentieth Century by Jerry White helpful and fascinating.
Is Connie’s neighbour, Robert returning? You gave us a tantalising glimpse of a very promising character and a potential sidekick for Connie.
Robert doesn't return in the next novel, The Ship of Spectres. It's set on a transatlantic steamship sailing to New York, and for a while I did dally with the thought that he might be a stowaway. But it didn't work for various reasons. However, Connie does have two allies: Bobby (which I realise now is a short form of Robert!), a young roller-skating Cockney bellboy, who is extremely useful to her; and Elmer, a weedy thirteen-year-old American, who turns up trumps and defies his overbearing mother. Robert Cavendish is not forgotten, though!
Patricia’s second Connie Carew mystery, The Ship of Spectres, will be published in July 2016.
The Book Launch for The Great Farty Slob Beast by Charlie Farley, illustrated by Joe Barleymow was attended by Andrea Rayner and held in a private room at the National Cafe on Trafalgar Square in October. It was a buzzing event as befits the aptly named publisher, Wacky Bee Books.As was Louise Jordan, the founder of both The Writers’ Advice Centre for Children’s Books and Wacky Bee Books. The evening was great fun with lots of friends, family and people from children’s publishing. There was a great atmosphere with everyone mixing and chatting happily.
Louise Jordan gave an excellent speech, telling everyone about Wacky Bee, and how The Great Farty Slob Beast came to be published. Charlie Farley, the author, was also circulating and chatting about the book, as was Joe Barleymow, the illustrator.
Charlie Farley was very sociable, chatting to various groups around the room. He talked about The Great Farty Slob Beast, saying that he had really enjoyed writing the book and that the story was influenced by his family and written for them.
The Great Farty Slob Beast is the second title to be published by Wacky Bee and it certainly sets a high standard. The company has previously published Geronimo, the Dog Who Thinks He’s a Cat by Jesse Wall.
Wacky Bee is a new small independent publisher, and is linked to The Writers’ Advice Centre for Children’s Books. I wish the company great success.
The Great Farty Slob Beast is reviewed on the Picture Book page.
Whilst the majority of our coverage is children’s books we do cover young adult too and this award is of interest for broadening our horizons and looking at publishing from minority groups that we can help to grow by reading.
The unveiling of the Shortlist for the DSC South Asian Literature Prize 2016 took place in the London School of Economics in late November. Established in 2010, the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature awards a prize of US $50,000 for the best work in fiction to one author from any ethnicity or nationality provided they write about South Asia and its people.
Following a welcome address by Dr Mukulika Banerjee, Director of the South Asia Centre and Associate Professor in Anthropology at the LSE, the guests assembled to hear the eminent shortlist revealed.
The DSC Prize for South Asian Literature 2016 shortlist comprises:
· Akhil Sharma: Family Life (Faber & Faber, UK)
· Anuradha Roy: Sleeping on Jupiter (Hachette, India)
· K.R. Meera: Hang Woman (Translated by J Devika; Penguin, India)
· Mirza Waheed: The Book of Gold Leaves (Viking/Penguin India)
· Neel Mukherjee: The Lives of Others (Vintage/Penguin Random House, UK)
· Raj Kamal Jha: She Will Build Him A City (Bloomsbury, India)
The jury panel is made up of eminent figures who have all worked in or around South Asia and understand the fabric of the society needed to best judge the narrative around the texts. This year’s shortlist was judged by an international five member jury panel.
Mark Tully, Jury Chair said, ‘We have had to make difficult decisions because all the books on the very varied long-list could qualify for the shortlist. Our final list still reflects the variety and vigour of South Asian fiction writing and writing about South Asia. One of the most striking features of the list is the quality of writing. The novels are also remarkable for their realism and for the way they convey atmosphere. I am particularly glad that a translation from a South Asian language into English is included in the shortlist’.
Another highlight of the prize is that writing in regional languages is encouraged and the prize money is equally shared between the author and the translator in case a translated entry wins. This works as a great impetus for regional writers who often struggle to gain visibility on international shores.
This year, the winner of the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature will be announced at the Galle Literary Festival in Sri Lanka, on 16th January 2016.
Waterstones, Piccadilly holds a number of extremely good book-related events. Recently, I (Andrea Rayner) went to An Evening with John Boyne there organised by Penguin Schools @Random House Children’s Publishers. John Boyne is the author of many excellent books for both adults and children, including The Boy in Striped Pyjamas and The Boy at the Top of the Mountain.
The evening was chaired by Simon Mayo, the radio DJ and author of the extremely good Itch Rocks series. The audience was made up not only of teachers and publishing professionals but also of fans of John Boyne’s fiction.
The audience was very receptive and John Boyne was a very articulate and fluent speaker. Everything he said was well considered and thought out. He talked eloquently about his writing, telling the audience about some of the inspirations and techniques behind The Boy at the Top of the Mountain. It was obvious that he had done a lot of research for the book, including going to Bavaria where the Eagle’s Nest and Berghof were. John Boyne’s work often covers complex and disturbing issues, and he is very much concerned with the subtle nuances between good and evil and how each is not an absolute.
After the talk, there were many enthusiastic questions in the Question-and-Answer session and the queue to have copies of the book signed stretched across the book shop floor.
The Boy at the Top of the Mountain is reviewed over on the Junior page.
In early October, I (Andrea Rayner) went to a Jim Kay Event at Bloomsbury Books. It was in one of Bloomsbury’s events rooms at their main offices on Bedford Square. Unusually, it was a seated event. The room looked full – I think there was over a hundred people there.
Jim Kay has illustrated the new full-colour large format edition of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone.
The talk was given as a very informal lecture with Jim Kay showing slides of how he worked through the process and also of previous work that had influenced the book. In many cases, he had made models and had worked through several versions of an illustration before coming up with its final form. I was very impressed with just how much thought, effort and hard work went into each illustration.
Jim Kay was very conscious of the fact that many readers will have a strong idea of what the story should look like. He wanted to make the concepts familiar enough so that they embraced the existing and new readership but also to bring new ideas and a fresh style to the pictures. After, seeing the various illustrations from the book, it was obvious that he had achieved this and more with illustrations that are unique, original, full of detail but also playful and convincing. It was also a lovely touch that he put in small motifs that resonated for him on a personal level, such as a mouse that reminded him of a friend.
It was a very interesting talk and Jim Kay was a very engaging speaker, talking not just about the illustration process but also about some of the professional and personal challenges illustrators face. I came away from a very enjoyable evening with a greater understanding of the complex work involved in illustration.