Not Another Story Set In Victorian London?!
Hello, and thanks for having me on The Pewter Wolf.
First off – an apology. Yes, I’ve written another story set in Victorian London. I know I know, far better writers than me have been there already – Joan Aiken’s wonderfully creepy Wolves of Willoughby Chase, Philip Pullman’s gripping Sally Lockhart thrillers…Oh, and some bloke called Dickens.
But I didn’t have a choice. My hero – Wild Boy – is a performer on a freak show, covered in hair since birth, and those grim ‘monster museums’ didn’t really exist after the 1860s (or, at least, not so openly). I wanted Wild Boy’s story to end at the biggest, rowdiest fair of them all – Bartholemew’s Fair in the heart of London. So that was where my story had to go. Only, I realised, I’d bloomin’ well better have something new to say.
As I read about Wild Boy’s time (the 1840s), I grew to understand why the Victorian world has excited so many authors’ imaginations. I think, partly, it’s because it feels close. We share the Victorian’s houses, parks and hospitals. Yet, at the same time, it’s a foreign place. I recognise some of their buildings, but not all of them. I know some that landmark, but those signs and vehicles are strange to me. It feels like a fantasy reality – a world I want to explore.
Victorian London was also a very unpleasant place, and there’s nothing writers love more than very unpleasant places. How can you not want to write about a city where public entertainment included bare-knuckle boxing, animal baiting, and hangings? And the reek and the roar of it all! The clop of hooves, the rattle of iron-rimmed wheels. The curses from drivers and the cracks from their whips. The stink of animal dung and the stench from the industries along the riverfront – the breweries, tanneries, knackers’ yards and bladder blowers. And, of course, from the Thames itself, that giant sewer, toxic with waste from a million homes.
Another odd thing about children’s writers is that, while we love our characters dearly, we try to make their lives as tough as possible. And few places were tougher for children than London in the early nineteenth century. Boys and girls as young as five worked in factories. Others lived by their wits on the streets, eking out livings as crossing sweepers, rat catchers, or pure collectors (who collected dog and pigeon poo to sell to tanners).
These were desperately hard lives.
But all of this was normal.
What fascinated me was this: What if someone was not normal? What if this person was born different – a freak covered in hair, forced to perform on a travelling show? How much harder would his life be and how much tougher would that make him?
But let’s make it even worse. What if this boy was framed for murder, on the run, hunted for a reward on his head? Only then was I sure that I had a new story to tell in this creepily familiar place. But I couldn’t leave him there helpless. So I gave him a tool, another thing that’s not normal about him. You see, Wild Boy is not just a freak. He is also the greatest detective of his time.