A Witness to Murder. published by Bookouture, is the third book in my historical murder mystery series. The heroine, and reluctant sleuth, Lady Eleanor Swift has been brought up abroad by Bohemian parents and struggles to fit into the Downton Abbey world of male domination, endless social functions and class division.
However, like me, she also learns that women in Edwardian England weren’t all fluttering their eyes at their latest beaus and learning deportment...
1. In A Witness to Murder, Lady Eleanor Swift is unwittingly drawn into a murder investigation in the 1920s England. What few people know is that there were real-life female private investigators, even in Edwardian days. The most famous, or infamous, was Maud West, who opened business in 1905. By 1920 she was openly writing about her exploits in the more low-brow press of the day. Whether you actually believe she took out a Brazilian drug-running factory single-handed and thwarted enemy spies in English Naval Bases, all while uncovering evidence of adultery in High Society, one thing is certain; she showed that not all Edwardian women were shrinking violets.
2. Another group of women who were far from shrinking violets at the time, were the Suffragettes. Lady Mary’s sister, Sybil, in Downton Abbey being one of them. And in A Witness to Murder, Lady Eleanor Swift becomes involved with a radical branch of the Suffragettes. However, like many of the real Suffragettes, she was trained in jiu jitsu, a form of martial art. Indeed, there are many cartoons from the period showing jiu jitsu Suffragettes teaching policemen a serious lesson in women power!
3. In A Witness to Murder, Lady Eleanor Swift stands as the area’s first female MP. At the time, 1920, Nancy Astor was the only woman sitting in Parliament, so Eleanor wouldn’t be the first. She has a different problem, though. She’s only twenty-nine, which means she can legally stand as a woman for parliament in the local election, but she’s not allowed to vote! In a bizarre anomaly, women were given the right to stand for Parliament from the same age as men, twenty-one, but were not allowed to vote until they were thirty.
4. The Edwardian England of Downton Abbey was all about show, especially when entertaining. And at the heart of entertaining was food. Like today, French chefs were in huge demand for their snob value. However, not all famous French chefs were male. In the very first awarding of three stars by Michelin in 1933, two chefs were women. And one of them held the record for Michelin stars by a chef of any gender until 1988!
5. Downton Abbey’s butler, Carson, is the epitome of the English butler. In A Witness to Murder, Lady Eleanor Swift has her own butler, Clifford, who has been a butler since the ealry 1890s. She soon finds out he also has many secrets. And a little known secret is that back in the 1890s there was actually a female butler, Bunch, employed by a Mr Sydney Smith.
6. Throughout the Lady Swift series, Eleanor finds herself struggling with the attitude of the local police. As a woman, she is automatically perceived as emotionally unstable and therefore unreliable as a witness. She bemoans the lack of female police in the local force. Actually, the first woman appointed as a police officer with full powers was Edith Smith, five years earlier. By 1920, there were over 126 women police officers. Only fourteen of them, however, were employed outside of the metropolitan police, hence there being none in Eleanor’s town!
7. Lady Eleanor Swift’s beau is a dashing pilot, called Lancelot Benedict Germaine Fenwick-Langham, the son of a local lord. Most people know the English born Amy Johnson was the first woman to fly from England to Australia in 1930, but few know that women were making their mark in all areas of the male-dominated aviation world. In 1933, one of Amy Johnson’s friends, Dorothy Spicer, became the first woman in the world to earn an aeronautical engineering degree, reserved previously only for men. By 1935, she held every level of aeronautical engineering awarded and was licensed to design and build airplanes from scratch.
8. The father of Lady Eleanor Swift’s beau, Lancelot, is a lord and a Justice of the Peace. In 1919, the year Eleanor returns to England, nineteen women were appointed Justices of the Peace after the sexual discrimination act was passed earlier that year. Three years later, Helena Normanton became the first woman barrister. In the same year, four women became the first female solicitors in the country. The male bastion of Law and Order was slowly beginning to crumble.
9. Having been brought up abroad, Lady Eleanor Swift had no formal education until, at the age of eleven, her parents mysteriously disappeared. Having been then sent to a strict English girl’s boarding school that she hated, she escaped the education system as soon as she could. Had she wanted to, however, she could have stayed and studied at Oxford, and even gained a degree and graduated. In 1920, fifty-two women earned a degree at Oxford and, for the first time, were allowed to graduate. Women had been allowed to take degrees before, but weren’t allowed to graduate. How mean was that?
10. In A Witness to Murder, Lady Eleanor Swift finds many of the women in her local village and town, far from being keen for change, are firmly against it. But as the previous entries show, change was coming, whether they wanted it or not. One woman who finally had to admit times were changing was Mary Smith. In 1920 she was a famous London ‘knocker-upper’. Before cheap, reliable alarm clocks became available, many working class shift workers employed someone to wake them up. Turning up late, even once, could mean dismissal and penury. Mary, and then her daughter, also named Mary, knocked workers up...with pea-shooters! For over twenty years Mary would stand in the street shooting peas at a client’s window until they woke up. The rule was, she never left until she was sure they were awake. Mary’s daughter took over the family business, but by the late 1920s the career of knocker-upper was slowly being lost to the annals of time.
I hope you enjoyed learning about these amazing women as much as I did. And perhaps now, you’ll see Downton Abbey in a whole new light.