Readers have asked whether Graylings, the country seat that Oliver Farraday, one of the main characters in my new novel, owns and dearly loves, was based on a particular National Trust property. I have to admit that yes, it was. Or rather, it was based not just on a particular National Trust property, but more on an amalgamation of umpteen properties and other stately homes. Image: margaretkaine.com This was not necessarily because of meticulous research. Over many years I have absorbed the architectural grace of buildings. I have been thrilled by the beautiful and sumptuous furnishings. And as I was writing and setting scenes in the fictional settings of Graylings, Faraday House and Broadway Manor, in my mind and heart was the ambience I had imbued when visiting such properties. Althorp for instance, with its unforgettable connection to Princess Diana, is within twenty-six miles of my home in Leicestershire. I once had the privilege of attending luncheon in the formal surroundings of its dining room, and I remember the black and white tiled floor of the hall and the huge oil paintings lining the majestic staircase. Chatsworth, in the neighbouring county of Derbyshire, I found both magnificent and awe-inspiring. Burghley House in Lincolnshire, Shugborough in Staffordshire, Belton House in Lincolnshire … the word ‘Midlands’ so often conjures up an image of an industrial area, but we possess glorious countryside and a wealth of history.
The beautiful Althorp.
Image: secretseedsociety.com I was part-way through writing my novel having recently enjoyed the original and wonderful series Upstairs Downstairs, when Downton Abbey hit our television screens. Watching this new period drama only served to inspire me even more. Another programme, Who do You Think You Are, revealed how so many of us can trace a family member who at one time worked as a servant. My own grandmother for instance, at one time worked as a scullery maid at the age of thirteen and only escaped a life of toiling for others through marriage. Did you know that a lowly maid had to wipe out all the used chamber pots of the house with vinegar and water? I didn’t. The glamorous life of the wealthy for which we romantics yearn was only made possible by the unceasing drudgery of others.
Image: frrarchitects.co.uk While it may be true that the stately homes, and upper and middle classes provided employment for thousands, working conditions were dependant on the whim of the employer, and were often harsh and lowly paid, with the constant fear of dismissal without a reference. The ‘them’ and ‘us’ culture was never more pertinent. I would like to think that nowadays we have more of a social conscience. Certainly researching my novel has made me feel grateful for blessings of our present age such as indoor sanitation, constant hot water and domestic appliances, all of which have made the physical hardship of domesticity outdated. So although I cannot resist unrealistic dreams of being an Edwardian aristocrat, as I walk around my favourite historic properties, I will in future be content with enjoying fiction set in a period still considered a golden age. One cannot deny that it was golden, but sadly only for a privileged few.