Helen Peters has an established reputation for her authentic, hugely engaging countryside-set stories such as The Secret Henhouse Theatre and new Jasmine Green series for younger readers. But her latest book, Evie’s Ghost, is something quite different: a time slip story in which a modern teenage girl goes back to the early 1800s to help another young woman. Andrea Reece interviewed Helen about her book for Books for Keeps.
The Secret Henhouse Theatre and The Farm Beneath the Water have won many fans amongst young readers. Set on a farm based closely on the one that Helen grew up on, they are wonderfully realistic, filled with a deeply felt love for the natural world and for farming life. Evie’s Ghost, her new book, tells the story of teenager Evie, who magically travels back into the past, where she finds herself employed as a house maid in a grand house, and helping keep secrets for its young mistress. It turns out that a trip to a National Trust property sparked the idea. Helen explains, ‘I’d just finished The Secret Henhouse Theatre, and while writing it thought I’d never write anything else, I’d been so absorbed in it. But then on a visit to Osterley Park I overheard a guide telling another visitor that the family who built it had just one child, a daughter, and that she had eloped aged 17 with an unsuitable suitor. Her father had chased her across the country up to Gretna Green but failed to catch them in time and died of a broken heart three months later. It was incredibly dramatic and I found myself thinking about this girl and what a bizarre life she must have led, a lonely child in that household, and wondering whether she would have been able to make any friends with any of the hundreds of servants there, who would have been her own age. Then I started imagining what if a girl nowadays went to stay in one of those houses and found her way back to that girl in the past, at the same age as she was, and got caught up in that elopement drama… So that was how it started.’
‘At the beginning’ says Helen, ‘I imagined my character Sophia eloping with somebody who was of her own class but considered unsuitable.’ In fact, Sophia falls in love with one of the servants, a young man called Robbie. A real life story from another old house providing the further inspiration: ‘I read about Hellen’s Manor in Herefordshire and a girl called Hetty Walwyn who lived there in the 18th century. She had eloped allegedly with a stable boy and her family were so angry that when she returned they locked her up in her childhood bedroom for the rest of her life. Scratched on the window is the quote, “It is a part of virtue to abstain from what we love if it should prove our bane”. I suddenly thought what if the girl who eloped was locked up and she’d scratched these words and Evie then goes and stays in this same room and reads these words and that’s the catalyst that takes her into the past.’
It would be some time between the idea and publication however. Helen’s editor, Nosy Crow’s Kirsty Stansfield, steered her first towards writing a second Henhouse Theatre book, and then towards the books for younger readers.
Helen is glad now that she came back to Evie’s Ghost having written another four books: ‘I think it helped me become a better writer. When I was writing the first version because it was so different from what I’d done before I found it really quite hard. I was trying first person narrative too and Evie has a stroppy teenage voice that is very different from Hannah. I found it really difficult to get my head round the time travel too. When I went back to it I found it easier.’
I read lots of time travel books and Tom’s Midnight Garden was the one that really inspired me
Her editor’s advice there was very helpful too: ‘Kirsty kept saying keep it simple. I read lots of time travel books and Tom’s Midnight Garden was the one that really inspired me. It has a magical quality that’s impossible to emulate, but I kept rereading it and looking at the time travel aspect; the way Tom goes into the past is incredibly simple, the clock strikes, he walks to the door and it’s transformed. Initially mine was quite complex so I decided to simplify it. Hopefully you carry your reader along and they go with it. I always do that when reading time slip books – if I like the characters and the story then I’ll happily go along with that element of the story’.
I read an actual servant’s manual from 1825, The Complete Servant, a terrifying book!
Evie’s Ghost is also a compelling piece of historical fiction, her life as a lowly housemaid particularly well described. Helen enjoyed researching the book very much. ‘There’s lots you can read, though not first-hand accounts because so few servants could read or write, particularly female servants, and if they could they didn’t have the time. But from the late 20th century it began to be documented. A book that really helped with the details of Evie’s life is The Maid’s Tale by Tom Quinn who compiles oral histories. He interviewed a woman called Rose Plummer who’d worked in a grand London house at the beginning of the 20th century, there was running water but apart from that it was pretty much as it would have been 100 years earlier. I also read an actual servant’s manual from 1825, by Samuel and Sarah Adams The Complete Servant, a terrifying book! They started off very lowly and worked their way up to butler and housekeeper. It lists all the duties of each servant including the house maid, from morning to night – an absolutely hideous list of everything they have to do.’ Understandably, Evie struggles in the book with her housemaid duties, and a friendly fellow servant explains in detail what’s required. The descriptions are likely to horrify young readers, and Peters doesn’t spare details of the physical effects of the work: ‘Rose Plummer talks about how painful her hands were all the time and how some girls found it so awful they just couldn’t stand it and they left, they were in so much pain.’
It does you quite a lot of good to look at how your own life could have been
This was another part of the appeal of time slip to her: ‘I thought it was good to have a modern girl’s perspective on what that kind of life would be like, especially looking at my own children, who are 11 and 14, and how easy their life is in comparison. It does you quite a lot of good to look at how your own life could have been if only you’d been born in a different place and a different time.’
The ‘upstairs downstairs’ theme is reflected in her own family: ‘My father came from quite a wealthy family where they employed servants but my mother’s parents both came from poor families and both went out to work as servants; my grandfather was a gardener’s boy at 13 and my grandmother went out to work also at 13 as a housemaid, and hated it.’ The idea of life as a lottery entirely dependent on who you’re born to, is important to Helen. ‘I really wanted to get that across with Polly and Robin, two of the young servants in the book, that it’s pure chance that they’ve ended up where they’ve ended up, that they never get the opportunity to show what they can do. My grandmother so wished that she’d had an education, and was so happy when her grandchildren got a better education than she got.’
Evie is certainly changed by her experiences in the past. ‘That was something I knew from the very beginning I wanted to happen, that she would be changed by it and gain a perspective on her life from the past; that she would go into it quite spoiled and feeling that she had a really hard life, and come out of it thinking actually I have quite a good life.’
Will Helen write more time slip stories? ‘I would like to do more historical novels and maybe another time slip story. I’m really interested in that period between the wars, when things were changing so much, there were still servants and an upper class, but it was so tenuous and shaky and everyone knew it wasn’t going to stay the same for ever. I’d really like to research that.’
In the meantime however she is writing the 5th Jasmine Green book and there’ll be a sixth one that is all planned, and then a third Henhouse Theatre book. Lots in fact for her readers to look forward to.
Andrea Reece is managing editor of Books for Keeps.
Evie’s Ghost is published by Nosy Crow, 978-0-8576-3842-7, £6.99 pbk.