Anita Davison talks about her latest novel, The Forgotten Children.
1. Tell us more about your latest novel, The Forgotten Children.
The premise of the Flora Maguire mysteries is that Flora was raised by Riordan Maguire, the head butler at the country estate of Earl Trent on the edge of the Cotswold countryside. Questions have always surrounded her mother’s death, whom Flora lost at the age of six. Memories returned in disturbing dreams throughout her childhood which have always haunted her, but Lily Maguire’s fate remains a mystery.
At eighteen, Flora became governess to the youngest Trent child, Edward, where her status as neither family nor servant in the household taught her to be both discreet and observant in a Victorian atmosphere of secrets and half-truths. Thus when she comes into contact with death, she cannot resist questioning the general assumption it was caused by an accident.
The revelation of family secrets during a personal tragedy change Flora’s perception of herself forever, while her marriage to Bunny, a young man she met in the first book, gives her more freedom to seek out murderers.
In this fourth book in the series, Flora and Bunny’s pursuit of wrongdoers takes them into the darker side of life. A chance encounter during a case of murder at St Philomena’s Children’s Hospital in Southwark sends Flora on a personal quest to discover what really happened to her mother.
2. Did you do any specific research for the book?
Apart from immersing myself in Edwardian England through documents, maps and old photographs, even film reels, my research is very specific to each book. For instance for Book 3, I needed a location for the murder in Knightsbridge, but away from the main thoroughfare. One Christmas I dragged my family away from the lights and shops and instead took them on a hunt down backstreets around Hyde Park. It was worth it though as I found The Grenadier in a side alley. It was originally built in 1720 as the Officers Mess for The First Royal Regiment of Foot Guards behind what was once a Barracks. It was not only a public house in 1903 [and still is] but has a fascinating history as well as a resident ghost.
The main focus of The Forgotten Children is set on a stretch of the River Thames around Tower Bridge, so I made a trip to the Shad Thames area of London to see the entrance of the Neckinger River and the Old Horselydown Stairs. This area has changed its focus a great deal since 1904, but the old warehouse buildings, the quays, the shingle beaches and piers all still exist. There are more pleasure boats on the water these days as there are more tourists there than dockers, and the bustling warehouses of Shad Thames have been converted into very expensive flats, but the exteriors have been preserved pretty much as they were then – if cleaner.
I also found the entrance to the Tower Subway, but there was little chance of venturing inside. Being the first underground train service beneath the Thames I would have liked to have seen it. I would have gone to see the Evelina Children’s Hospital on which St Philomena’s is based, but the original building has gone and it’s now part of Guy’s Hospital in a high-tech extension.
3. Do you have a favourite part or scene from The Forgotten Children? Could you tell us why you love it?
My research of The Evelina Children’s Hospital founded by Baron Ferdinand de Rothschild was what started me on Flora Maguire’s latest adventure. There is a brilliant website [http://www.hharp.org/library/evelina/general/history.html] which describes the original 19th century building as well as lists of patient records which tell their own poignant stories.
I suppose the part of the book I love is when Flora and Bunny are given a tour of the hospital by the matron, Miss Finch. I might have got a little carried away, but the facilities of the hospital built in the 1860s was fascinating and much before its time so I couldn’t resist. I also included the innovation of X-rays although a great invention at the time, proved tragic to those who worked with them in the early days.
4. Can you pick one of the secondary characters in the novel and tell us a bit more about him/her?
My favourite has to be Sally Pond, Flora’s personal maid whom she employed mainly to annoy her mother-in-law who deemed Sally unsuitable. Flora understands better than most what it means to be a servant and despite criticism, treats hers well. She loves Sally’s brave and adventurous nature, and often includes her in her investigations, as being streetwise, Sally can go into places Flora cannot.
5. Do you have a set daily writing routine?
I plan my day to incorporate specific research and writing time, necessary chores, preparation of meals, exercise and time spent with my family. Armed with my first coffee of the day I open my laptop and within minutes, all my carefully laid plans dissolve and time ceases to exist as I am lost in the past. Housework is forgotten, there is more dust on the vacuum cleaner than in it, laundry piles up and the rubbish doesn’t get put out until I hear the dustcart outside. My family swear I will dissolve if I step into daylight and I rarely answer when spoken to. Also, dinner only happens because my husband cooks. But my intentions are good.
6. Who was your favorite author growing up? Has it changed?
When I was really small I liked all the classics, Kingsley’s The Water Babies, Stevenson’s Treasure Island, James Falkner’s Moonfleet etc. so historical fiction was always my preference. In my teens I read Forever Amber, the novels of Jean Plaidy and Cynthia Harrod-Eagles’ ‘Dynasty’ series, which I still love. More recently I enjoy the work of CJ Sansom and his Tudor lawyer Matthew Shardlake.
More recently, I am enjoying the work of other Aria authors like Jennifer Wells, Georgie Capron, Faith Hogan and Carys Jones. There are plenty more whom I hope to get around to as well.
7. What message do you want readers to take away from your novels?
That although we see the past as a romantic place where ladies in sumptuous dresses and gentlemen in high collars and tailcoats took tea in elegant drawing rooms; it was also outrageously unfair, short and often cruel. We might think the attitudes of those times were quaint, like the fact that women did not eat in public, or a man had no right to vote unless he owned or rented property above a certain amount, but it was through these harsh realities of life that the rights and privileges we enjoy now evolved. A free and fair society doesn’t just happen – many people have had to fight for it so we shouldn’t take it for granted.
8. If you could go back and talk to yourself when you were starting out, what advice would you offer?
I have always loved the 17th century, but it’s an era which is a niche within a niche. I was a debut author of a family saga set in 1685, at a time when that genre was not popular, thus I made life very difficult for myself.
Write what you love, but if you want to sell books, also take into account what readers want to read.
9. If you weren’t a writer, what would you be?
A history professor of Early Modern History in an ancient English university. I would have a suite of rooms overlooking a medieval quadrangle and hold tea parties in my private sitting room for my students in beautiful surroundings where I could live in the past.
10. What’s next for you?
I am contracted by Aria Fiction to write another Flora Maguire Story. This one is set in 1905 when Flora’s father William, is masquerading as a Bolshevik during Lenin’s 3rd Conference held in London. Flora has to solve the mystery of a murder in which her cousin and former charge, Eddy, now a young man at university, finds himself embroiled.
The forgotten children of London are going missing, apparently being sold by their own families. Can she save them before it’s too late…
Flora Maguire’s life is perfect – a beautiful home in Belgravia teeming with servants, a loving husband, and new baby Arthur to enjoy. But when she is invited to tour St Philomena’s Children’s Hospital in deprived Southwark, she gets a harsh insight into the darker side of Edwardian London.
Shocked by the conditions people are living in, she soon uncovers a scandal with a dark heart – children are going missing from the hospital, apparently sold by their own families, and their fate is too awful to imagine. With the police seemingly unable or unwilling to investigate, Flora teams up with the matron of the hospital, Alice Finch, to try to get to the bottom of it.
Soon Flora is immersed in the seedy, dangerous underbelly of criminal London, and time is running out to save the children. Will they get to them in time, or was their fate decided the day they were born poor…
Born in London, Anita Davison has always had a penchant for all things historical. She now lives in the beautiful Cotswolds, the backdrop for her Flora Maguire mysteries.