The Foundling Museum in London’s Kings Cross is staging an exhibition on the Hetty Feather novels by Jacqueline Wilson, entitled Picturing Hetty Feather.
Dr Rebecca Butler interviewed Dame Jacqueline for Books for Keeps.
A considerable part of Jacqueline Wilson’s published work is set in the Victorian and Edwardian periods, including books such as The Lottie Project, Opal Plumstead and Clover Moon. Are these periods of special interest to Jacqueline? If so, why?
Jacqueline explained that she had been writing contemporary books for children for many years when Rhian Harris, the first director of the Foundling Museum, asked her if she had ever considered writing about a foundling. She suddenly felt inspired.
She knew that Jamilla Gavin had written Coram Boy, a novel about a foundling boy saved from a shipwreck in the 1750s, a book which won the Whitbread Children’s Book Award in 2000. Jacqueline therefore decided to write a story about a girl set in the late nineteenth century, a period that interests her greatly. This became the first Hetty Feather book.
Jacqueline has always been fascinated by the Victorians. She loves reading Victorian novels, collecting Victorian ornaments and visiting Victorian buildings. When her daughter Emma was little she too developed a passion for the Victorian age. Emma and her mother wrote all sorts of stories together. They drew Victorian people and played elaborate Victorian imaginary games.
I asked Jacqueline to explain for Books for Keeps readers a little more about her cooperation with the Foundling Hospital? How did it come about? What aims was she pursuing? Jacqueline explained that she was made a special Coram Fellow by the Foundling Museum. There are three Fellows of the Museum appointed with different responsibilities, namely a Coram fellowship for someone like herself who works with children, a Hogarth fellowship for a visual artist and a Handel fellowship for a musician. Jacqueline was pleased and proud to be made a Fellow and wanted to help the Museum in any way she could.
There was a question that I felt would help our readers understand the social pressures on disadvantaged mothers in the Victorian and Edwardian eras. When Jacqueline was becoming aware of the resources of the Museum, did she reach any understanding of why in the Victorian and Edwardian periods women felt forced to abandon their children?
Jacqueline answered that her understanding of these pressures was greatly enhanced by the literature of the times. Before she had any involvement with the Museum she understood how in Victorian times it was almost impossible for a woman to be a single parent, as described in novels such as Ruth (1853) by Elizabeth Gaskell and Tess of the D’Urbervilles (1892) by Thomas Hardy. Even in her own times young women were encouraged – or indeed pressured – to give up their babies because it was still considered a disgrace to be an ‘unmarried mother’. She is grateful that times have changed now.
I asked Jacqueline to tell Books for Keeps readers a little more about how she uses the facilities of the Museum to do the research for her own books such as the Hetty Feather series. She explained that the Museum played a more important role in relation to the Hetty Feather books than just providing research facilities and the Foundling Museum provided the impetus that led her to write the original Hetty Feather book and its sequels. However there is not a lot of material about life in late Victorian times in the Foundling Hospital. She made the best of what she could find. She read various books about the history of the museum, and checked records that had survived such as the daily diet sheets and lists of uniforms. She pored over illustrations of the times but still had to rely heavily on her own imagination picturing the times and the pressures. When she had finished the first Hetty Feather book she sent it the museum so that they could check her text for authenticity.
Were there any particular aspects of the lives of Victorian foundlings that she found upsetting to research?
When mothers left their babies at the Foundling Hospital they sometimes left a token for the baby to remember them by. A token might be a blanket, a teething ring or almost anything. Jacqueline found the tokens mothers left for their babies immensely touching. These women knew they would never see the children again. She was also moved by the audio recordings made by Foundlings of the 20th century. She has met several real foundlings face to face and listened to their stories with great interest.
Had she came across any pictures or objects in the Museum’s collection that struck her as particularly significant? She was struck by a black and white illustration of Sunday lunch at the Foundling Hospital with all the children on display. She also spent ages looking at the large wall with all the chosen names for the foundlings – some so strange, some very prosaic. There’s no Hetty Feather of course, but Jacqueline thinks her name would definitely fit the list.
I suggested that Books for Keeps readers would like to know what it’s like as an author to have a museum exhibition curated around her work. Did Jacqueline influence any aspect of the exhibition? Or did she just leave it to the professionals?
Jacqueline found it a marvellous experience to have a museum exhibition about her work. This is not the first time it has happened. There was a big exhibition of Jacqueline’s work at the Seven Stories Museum, the National Centre for Children’s Books in Newcastle, she had all sorts of input and made many suggestions. The exhibition started, at Jacqueline’s suggestion, with a mock-up of her childhood bedroom, featuring her shelf of books, her writing notebooks and her sparse furniture. After a journey through her life and books, the exhibition ended with another mock-up, this time of her bedroom now, with many more books and a computer and much nicer furniture, to show that I was still very much the same person, just a little wealthier. But the Picturing Hetty Feather exhibition features some of the sets from the studios where the Hetty Feather series was filmed and the Foundling Museum’s own material. In this instance it was better to leave the design of the exhibition to the Museum staff.
Finally I took advantage of this opportunity to ask Jacqueline what new books are in the Wilson pipeline? The next book to appear will be entitled Hetty Feather’s Christmas which will be published in October 2017. In the spring of 2018 there will be a sequel to Clover Moon entitled Rose Rivers, in which Hetty Feather will also make a guest appearance.
On behalf of the readers of Books for Keeps I thanked Jacqueline Wilson for answering our questions.
Dr Rebecca Butler writes and lectures on children’s literature.
The Hetty Feather books are published by Yearling.
The Picturing Hetty Feather exhibition runs at the Foundling Museum until 3 September 2017. Family events include a special event with Jacqueline Wilson on 22 August.