Writing my first novel felt like a huge undertaking, especially attempting to write historical fiction. I wasn’t sure if I would be able to manage the research as well as navigate a story but I learned a lot throughout the process. I started by reading books about Victorian London and of course, Jack the Ripper. I’m lucky it’s a well-documented era but I also researched Victorian housekeeping, newspapers, fashion, food, underground culture and studied underground and poverty maps. I wandered around Whitechapel a few times and went on a Jack the Ripper tour. At the centre of the novel it’s about a toxic relationship –that transcends time. In the end, a lot of the historical detail came out during the editing process. The story comes first, so while it was interesting, it was an invaluable lesson in balancing research and storytelling.
When I was researching, I expected to read about extreme poverty, a rigid class system and women being second class citizens since so many rights, such as voting, didn’t come until years later. I wasn’t even surprised to learn about the lunacy laws that meant people could be interred in private run for-profit asylums if they could fudge the necessary paperwork. What I didn’t expect to learn was that nursing was only recently regarded as a respected profession. My main character starts her story as a nurse at the London Hospital in Whitechapel, which is now called the Royal London Hospital. I really enjoyed learning about the formidable Eva Luckes, a confidant of Florence Nightingale, who became matron at the age of twenty-six and undertook huge nursing reforms at the hospital and turned it into a skilled and respected profession. Understanding that this was all part of a wider coordinated effort by this gang of women such as Luckes and Nightingale, to define nursing as a skilled trade with a decent wage and employment benefits was a real kick. There was a lot of resistance, but they managed to charm and coerce male allies by forming a strategy to appeal to their own ambitions as doctors and surgeons. Patients had a better survival rates with good nursing. Doctors wanted to take on more experimental surgery so they gained support from male doctors ultimately because it supported their own ambitions. These women didn’t have legislation on their side – they had to be strategists, and make covert plans and alliances.
There are so many stories of women in our history who have done amazing things and I don’t know why these narratives get lost but I’m drawn to them, and I know other people are interested and find their stories relatable and inspiring too. The struggles and achievements of British women don’t start and stop with Queens and Princesses – we need to unpick and rediscover these stories. These women were by no means perfect, often, they were devious and Machiavellian – they weren’t angels, they were flawed human beings - that’s what I loved discovering.