22 February 2013

Ordinary People

As you may or may not know, my historical novel, The Lark Ascending, is currently being considered by publishers. I know that can mean many things and not all positive but still, that's where we are. In the meantime I'm getting on (or trying to) with my next manuscript. So before I get totally immersed in 14th century Rosedale, I thought I'd remind myself of the background of the The Lark and what inspired me to write it.

I write historical fiction and, as much as I enjoy reading about lives of kings, queens and other well-known people, I prefer to write about ordinary folk having to cope with life as it was then - whenever it was.  I do not write about the starving and the downtrodden because I find it difficult to feel what abject poverty does to people. My forebears were all working-class but what I call aspirational. And that's where I feel most at home.

However, The Lark Ascending is not autobiographical. My characters are not based on people I know   but much of the feel and tone of it comes from my family: more specifically my mother's family. My novel is set in Leeds and opens in 1919 and Alice Fields my main character  She works in a shop but wants more from her life. Her father had a greengrocery in Burley, a working-class area of Leeds. My grandparents lived in Leicester. My grandfather once owned a shop - a drapers. It didn't prosper but that's another story.

My grandmother, Laura, felt somewhat superior because their house was on a the corner because of the shop and therefore bigger than its neighbours. They had three children, of whom, my mum was the youngest. They had two bedrooms and a box room, a kitchen and a scullery. And a back yard with their own privvy but no bathroom.

Laura and Fred Smith

Barbara (my mum), Nina and Eric
 As you can see from the names of my mother and her siblings, the family felt somewhat superior to the rest of the families in their street. And in some ways they were because Laura was a great believer in education. All three children won full scholarships to one of Leicester's best grammar schools which were fee-paying in those days (1930s). She worked hard to pay for their uniform and made sure that they had time and space to do their homework. My mother told me she was conscious of being poorer than the other girls in her class  who were the daughters of doctors, accountants and solicitors and she never invited them to her house but was never resentful of them or her teachers who were all Oxbridge-educated. She stayed at school until she was sixteen. That sounds ordinary to us but my grandmother had to defy her own parents, both Victorian strict chapel-goers, who did not believe in education  especially for girls. To them, Leicester's hosiery industry was a fine place for young women to work. It was indeed and employed many of my family's female members. They were all staunch Tories, too!

So some of this finds its way into The Lark Ascending. Alice Fields is ordinary but she learns that education is the way forward and I like to think that her daughter, Stella, only a small child in the novel, will go on to have the education my mother did. My grandmother lived to 103 and I like to think that Alice will too. However  I can't think my grandma would be impressed by the socialist slant to the novel!

Finally, both my grandfathers (Fred and Frank) were in the trenches of the First World War and both returned unscathed physically (although Fred was a gunner which destroyed his hearing.) But now I realise that their future lives were blighted by the experience. They both play their part in the character of Walter. He is not one of my main players but he is central to the plot.

I will write about other things that influenced the plot of The Lark in due course. Whether it ever sees the light of day remains to be seen. Fingers and toes crossed.


  1. Am crossing everything with you, Sally!

  2. Dear Sally - I have everything crossed too... I hope The Lark Ascending has great success! Lovely title...

  3. Thank you for this really enjoyable insight into your book. I love that period in history.
    My mother won a scholarship to grammar school in the 1930s, but her father refused to pay for the uniform and so she was unable to go. He was very stubborn and said a scholarship should mean that everything is paid for. She has always felt she missed out on an education she would have relished. She still loves learning new things at the age of eighty-six
    Wishing you all the very best with The Lark Ascending. I would love to read it.

  4. Hi Sally, Your book sounds brilliant! I wish you all the very best with the publishers so my fingers are tightly crossed for you. I love the idea that you've used your family history in this way give them a new life. Thank you for sharing a bit of your background with us too.