To coincide with the publication this week of the first novel in The Strattons series of YA historical fiction, allonymbooks author Flora Chase tells us a bit about the novel, and what led her to write it.
Flora, why did you choose to write a historical YA novel rather than something in the currently popular YA genres of fantasy or dystopia?
I was told once by a literary agent that it’s difficult to pitch historical novels successfully to teenagers and young adults, but I’ve always wondered if that was really true. The 200th anniversary of the publication of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice has recently been celebrated and lots of writers have been talking about why they love it so much. For me, reading it for the first time as a teenager (a long time ago!), I felt a great sympathy with how long the process of courtship seemed to take, how much time there was to sit around and wait and think and pine for the person you were falling in love with. Falling in love is an agonising experience as it is, but if you impose a lot of waiting around on it, every tiny change is ripe for interpretation and dissection.
But in these days of instant messaging, texting, facebook and Twitter, young people wear their hearts on their sleeves and the pace of romance has accelerated, hasn’t it?
That’s right, and that’s why I picked the Edwardian era. The novel is set in 1913, just before the start of the First World War, and was just at the start of the period of mass communication. In fact, one of my characters, Julia, is terrified of the new-fangled telephone, so it is a period which combines that traditional slow pace of older historical periods with a new degree of urgency. It’s also quite a racy time – there was a lot of gossip and intrigue, particularly among young people who were going to debutante balls or doing the social rounds of their peers, there was lots of flirtation, fashions were beginning to become more daring, and I think that makes a great backdrop for the writer and the reader.
Tell us something about the characters.
Freddie, Julia and Blanche Matchingham are the three teenage children of a travelling diplomat, the 4th Marquess of Stratton, and they have grown up pretty much alone on their family estate in the English countryside. Blanche, the youngest, is perhaps the most modern of the three, an adventurous social butterfly who is eager to escape the boredom of the country house to enjoy parties and enter the exciting adult world. Her older sister Julia is extremely shy, more interested in books than people, particularly since she was dumped by a young man she was expecting to marry. Freddie, the eldest, is fascinated by engines and machinery, and is desperate to go to university. When their father dies, only Julia seems to benefit, for she can avoid her dreaded début and presentation at Court. But Freddie will have to give up university to become the 5th Marquess and Blanche must start to behave herself, for her reputation is now much more important than it was, so suddenly these teenagers who have cheerfully done as they pleased, now have to grow up and take responsibility for their actions. Everything has changed. But as with all country houses, there is a life and a family of sorts below stairs, and we also meet Dinah, one of of the housemaids, who has become a friend to all the Matchingham children, particularly Freddie. A lot of readers might suggest that isn’t very authentic, and certainly that’s a criticism levelled at Downton Abbey in its familiarity between servants and Family, but this is a group of young people who have grown up together, without much adult influence and in a relatively isolated environment. Dinah’s perspective is sought by all three of the Matchinghams, who realise that the life they live is far removed from what other people might regard as normal.
This novel is also the first in a series, isn’t it?
Yes, and I’ll be writing the second one later this year. I think everyone enjoys reading about the development of serial characters, but for young adult readers there is the added interest of seeing how people their own age make choices and formulate good and bad decisions over a number of novels and the passage of time. I work a lot with teenagers and young adults in my ‘day job’ and everyone is both excited and scared about what their future holds. To begin with, the Matchinghams and Dinah all believe they know how their lives are going to turn out, so when the Marquess dies all that changes. They become aware of choices they had no idea existed, and are put in situations where they have to challenge their view of themselves. Of course, each character responds to that challenge in different ways, not everyone is equally brave, and what is exciting for me as a writer is being able to look at the consequences of those decisions, at how those journeys develop. The next novel in the series will cover the period leading up to the start of the First World War, the time when the ‘old’ lives of the aristocracy changed forever and young women really began to feel that they could equal everything that their brothers and boyfriends could do.