Step back in time
11th Sep 17

Step back in time

Look out for mystery and mayhem in this new series by Philip Ardagh! Step back into the past and discover how hard Victorian maids had to work, or how boys would train as a knight!

The Secret Diary of John Drawbridge describes what life might have been like as a 'Medieval Knight in Training' - and there is a mystery at its heart.

The Secret Diary of Jane Pinny takes us into Victorian times and the life of a house maid - Jane Pinny - who helps her masters to solve a mystery of a missing necklace.

We found out more from author PHILIP ARDAGH who answered the following questions for us:

Q: These books are part of a series for the National Trust. Did you visit their old houses as a child?

A: I've loved exploring old houses and castle ruins since childhood. My parents were members of the National Trust and we'd spend many hours of the school holidays visiting such places...

My brief was to write four books covering: castles, Victorian houses, Tudor Manors and the countryside, in a secret diary format, making sure that they were both fact-filled AND funny.

Q: What old places do you remember visiting as a child?

A: I have a real soft spot for Bodium Castle and Knole, but there's always the excitement of discovering properties new to us.

I well remember the excitement of visiting Pevensey Castle as a child, and discovering its connections with the Romans invaders AND William the Conqueror.

Q: What sparked your own love of history?

A: By living in Britain, we're lucky enough to be living in a landscape with history and prehistory - our past - very much on show.

We have burial chambers, hill forts, castles, roads, Roman villas, palaces, mansions, stately homes and so on scattered across the landscape.

Our towns and villages are peppered with black-and-white beamed medieval buildings... and then there are the churches, some dating back to before the Norman Conquest. I have visited hundreds and hundreds of old churches in my lifetime!

Q: How much research did you need to do before writing your stories?

A: In effect, I have been researching these books for years without knowing it! Sitting down to write them, I found myself thinking about all the exciting things I'd discovered for myself when visiting National Trust properties, and I continued to do so whilst writing.

It did require an element of background reading and checking, of course, but was a wonderful mix of research both in the field and on the page.

Q: How did you choose the names for your characters?

A: With each 'secret diary', I gave the main character a name relating to their role. We all know what a drawbridge is, which is how John Drawbridge got his name, and Jane Pinny is named after the pinny - the apron - that Victorian housemaids had to wear.

I also gave the castle an unlikely name. It's owned by Lord Widemoat, though it's unclear whether he's named after the castle or the castle after him.

Q: What was life like for Victorian servants, in The Secret Diary of Jane Pinny?

A: The more I researched the more it was reinforced that life below stairs could be hell. Series such as Downton Abbey may make great television but they paint a very rosy picture of life for servants in big houses.

In reality, there was a huge population of uneducated people looking for work, so a servant could be fired at the drop of a hat - on a whim - and be replaced that same day. And, without a good reference, that servant might find it hard to work again. The hours were long, conditions poor, and there were no unions looking out for your wellbeing.

I include a list of strict rules for servants in The Secret Diary of Jane Pinny, and each rule was a real one. Life was hard.

Q: Why did you decide to write these books as a diary series ?

A: The publisher came to me with the idea of their being secret diaries... and I had to find a way to make them work.

As for the 'how can we have a diary written by someone who couldn't actually write?' dilemma, I think this adds to the fun element. I had to be ingenious!

As a Victorian maid, Jane Pinny can't write so Plump, the pigeon who sleeps on the ledge outside her attic room window, offers to write it for her. This ups the comedy value, reminds us that ONLY THE FACTS ARE TRUE, instantly creates a human/animal bond and gets me out of a hole!

In the third book, The Secret Diary of Thomas Snoop, Tudor Boy Spy, Thomas is writing the diary in code as a report to his spymaster, Lord Severn. Thomas makes a few coding errors along the way...

Q: Why did you decide to include a mystery element in these stories?

A: The great thing about detective stories - whether a 1,000-page novel, a short story or a subplot - is that they have a beginning, a middle and an end: something happens, it needs to be solved, the culprit is unmasked or the reason explained. It keeps the reader reading, and reading more closely.

Detecting is also ripe for misunderstanding and misdirection and FUN. (There's that word again.)

Q: In the footnotes you explain the facts you mention in your stories. What was it like including fact and fiction in these books?

A: I enjoy writing fiction and I enjoy writing non-fiction, and fusing them together to write 'faction' is very enjoyable.

I think it important that people reading a mix of truth and made-up KNOW it's a mix. I don't want a reader to think for one minute that John Drawbridge was a genuine historical character but I want them to feel that the world he inhabits has a real truth to it.

Q: What do you think Jamie Littler's illustrations bring to the books?

A: Jamie has the unenviable task of having to create funny, dramatic, characterful illustrations of all shapes and sizes WHICH ARE HISTORICALLY ACCURATE. These books have the National Trust's name on them. He can't risk making great big boo-boos... and I think he's done a truly amazing job!

Q: If you could go back in time, where would you go?

A: Such a difficult question! With modern medical advances, it's easy to forget that numerous ailments that are so easily cured today could have caused serious discomfort, pain and even death in just about any other period in history!

The reign of Queen Elisabeth I must have been fascinating and I'd love to have visited Shakespeare's Globe theatre when the bard himself was there... then come home to my 21st-century bed with clean sheets in my centrally-heated house. Well, you did ask!

Q: Where is your favourite place to write?

A: I have both an office and a study in my home. At the moment, my office is more of a store room. There is a desk computer with a large screen in there but the bookshelves have reached capacity and there are piles of books on the floor, which I have to navigate like a maze every time I need to get to the printer.

My study, on the other hand, is much more civilized, with a wingback chair where I sit and work on my laptop. There's a view of woods from my window, and a squirrel often stares back at me.

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