I’m very excited to welcome Helen Peters to One More Page today to talk about her love of historic houses and how it inspired her beautiful new children’s novel, Evie’s Ghost. Helen grew up on an old-fashioned farm in Sussex, surrounded by family, animals and mud. She spent most of her childhood reading stories and putting on plays in a tumbledown shed that she and her friends turned into a theatre. After university, she became an English and Drama teacher. Helen lives with her husband and children in London, and she can hardly believe that she now gets to call herself a writer. Welcome Helen!
I have always loved visiting historic houses and imagining myself back to the days when they were properly lived in. And I’ve always envied the present-day staff who get to live in staff apartments in these beautiful places. The idea for Evie’s Ghost came to me when I visited Osterley Park, an incredibly grand eighteenth century palace now owned by the National Trust. I was fascinated to discover that the family who built it had only one child, a daughter, who had eloped, aged seventeen, with a man her parents considered unsuitable. I imagined a twenty-first century girl coming to live in this house because her mother had taken a job there. What if this girl somehow travelled back in time to meet the girl who lived there two hundred years earlier, and became caught up in her elopement plans?
I set the early drafts of Evie’s Ghost at Osterley Park, but Osterley Park is a sparkling, gilded, light-filled Georgian mansion, and I realised that I wanted the house in my book to have an older, ghostlier feel. So I based my fictional Charlbury House on another National Trust property: Chastleton, in Oxfordshire, an extraordinary house that has barely changed in four hundred years. I stayed with my family in the holiday apartment at this spooky Jacobean mansion one misty October half term, when the gardens, with their thick holly hedges and misshapen yew topiary, seemed particularly mysterious and ghost-laden.
Evie finds herself working as a housemaid at Charlbury, and visiting the servants’ quarters of historic houses helped me to imagine the lives of servants in the days before running water and central heating. Petworth and Uppark in Sussex have really well preserved servants’ quarters, with evocative artefacts and archive material that give the visitor a glimpse of servants’ working conditions and duties.
I find handwriting from the past particularly powerful, being so personal and specific. At my very favourite National Trust house, Ightham Mote in Kent, scratched into the glass of an upstairs window are the words, ‘Ann East, April 24 1791’. I’ve visited the house several times, and always wondered who Ann East was and why she scratched her name into that window. And then I read about Hellens Manor, an ancient house in Herefordshire, which has a particularly haunting message scratched into a bedroom windowpane. The message reads: ‘It is a part of virtue to abstain from what we love if it should prove our bane.’ The story goes that a young woman called Hetty Walwyn, who grew up at Hellens Manor in the seventeenth century, eloped with a stable boy. When she was widowed a few years later and returned to Hellens Manor, her family, furious at the disgrace she had brought upon them, imprisoned her for the rest of her life in the room where she scratched this message into the window glass with her diamond ring. According to legend, her ghost still haunts the chamber.
When I read this tragic tale, all the elements of my story finally came together. On her first night in her godmother’s house, Evie finds a message scratched into the glass of her bedroom window. It reads, ‘Sophia Fane, imprisoned here, 27th April 1814’. Evie’s discovery of this message is the beginning of her journey into the past and the story of the girl who scratched those words on her window two hundred years earlier.
Thank you Helen – I love visiting historic houses too – such fab inspiration!
Evie’s Ghost is released today (6th April) by Nosy Crow.
Find out more about Helen and her books at: http://nosycrow.com/contributors/helen-peters/
Evie couldn’t be angrier with her mother. She’s only gone and got married again and has flown off on honeymoon, sending Evie to stay with a godmother she’s never even met in an old, creaky house in the middle of nowhere. It is all monumentally unfair.
But on the first night, Evie sees a strange, ghostly figure at the window. Spooked, she flees from the room, feeling oddly disembodied as she does so.
Out in the corridor, it’s 1814 and Evie finds herself dressed as a housemaid. She’s certain she’s gone back in time for a reason. A terrible injustice needs to be fixed. But there’s a housekeeper barking orders, a bad-tempered master to avoid, and the chamber pots won’t empty themselves. It’s going to take all Evie’s cunning to fix things in the past so that nothing will break apart in the future…