• Grace's Story •
Swallowcliffe Hall, 1914
It's 1914, and World War One is about to change life at Swallowcliffe Hall for ever. Grace, Polly's daughter and a reluctant kitchenmaid, sees new opportunities opening up for her as most of the young male servants leave to fight in France and trainloads of wounded soldiers begin to arrive at the Hall in their place, to convalesce. War brings tragedy in its wake and Grace worries desperately about her beloved brother Tom, away at the Front. Nobody is safe, not even Lord and Lady Vye, making their way back from America aboard the ill-fated liner Lusitania. And then Grace finds herself falling in love – with the wrong person. Can she ever escape from the servants' hall, or will the old order stay as strong as ever?
'I found this book so engrossing that I was actually sorry to see it end. I think it gives an honest portrayal of life 'in service'. I highly recommend this series to people that are interested in a unique perspective of life in one of the great houses of England.' Elsie Hickman, Amazon US
When I came to write 'Grace's Story' (or 'Standing in the Shadows', as it was called then), I found it hard to find the right voice for my heroine. How could I make Grace different from her mother, Polly? And then it came to me that she had to be a tomboy, a girl who enjoyed climbing trees and riding out in the fresh air with her older brother, rather than being shut up inside a stuffy kitchen. In fact Grace hates being a servant, full stop; she doesn't have the same loyalty to Swallowcliffe Hall and the Vye family that her mother feels so fiercely. This aspect of her character chimed in nicely with the time frame of the story. The upheaval brought about by the First World War jolted everyone out of their everyday lives and gave many women a greater freedom than they'd ever known, alongside the burden of grief and suffering.
Here's an extract from 'Grace's Story':
‘Hurry up and come in, you dozy lot! It’s as cold as the Khyber Pass with that door wide open.’
Miss Eliza Everett was waiting for us in her backstage boudoir, where she would change before and after the show and where, Ma suspected darkly, she was in the habit of receiving visitors dressed in little more than a wrap - something no respectable lady would ever have contemplated. She was wearing her wrap now, a beautifully embroidered Chinese affair, but we were all family, so this was just about acceptable. She hugged me tight, swallowing me up in a cloud of rustling cream silk and the delicious scent of gardenias. Her dressing room’s always warm, summer or winter, with silk shawls pinned to the walls and draped over lampshades which turn the light into a rosy glow. It was all so cosy and ladylike - except for Johnny Sylvester, her manager, waxing the ends of his moustache in front of the mirror. Ma can’t bear him and I have my reservations, although he’s always pleasant to us, in a smarmy sort of way.
‘Now sit here and tell me your news, Pollyanna,’ Aunt Lizzie said to Ma, patting the chair beside hers. ‘Johnny, fetch some beer for the boys, there’s a dear, and Hannah can help me dress my hair while Grace does something artistic with those flowers.’ A chipped china jug on the table had been crammed full of red roses, drooping in the heat, with a card beside them which read ‘From a true admirer’.
We didn’t really have much news, of course, apart from Ma going back to work and things being so difficult at the Hall with all the young men leaving. Now Da had even lost Bill from the stables: they’d introduced special bantam regiments for men who were too short for the regular army, so he’d upped and joined one of those. ‘Goodness knows where we shall find anyone to replace him,’ Da said, and I suddenly noticed how tired he was looking.
‘What about you, young man?’ Aunt Lizzie said to Tom. ‘I should have thought you might have been off to fight by now. The army needs all the fine strong lads it can get.’
The room fell quiet. This was the question nobody had dared to ask; we all held our breath and waited for Tom’s reply.
‘Now you’ve spoilt my surprise,’ he said, setting down his beer mug. ‘I was going to break the news over supper. A crowd of us from the manor house have signed up with the Royal Field Artillery; Mr Ildersley had us driven to the recruiting office in his very own motor-car. We’ve been training near Ipswich for the last month.’
There was silence for a few seconds. ‘Why didn’t you say so before?’ All the colour had drained from Ma’s face. ‘Leaving your job and not so much as a word to me or your father!’
‘I wanted to tell you face to face.’ He reached over and took her hand. ‘Anyway, there hasn’t been much time to write, what with all the drill, and marching, and rifle training. They keep us pretty busy but we manage to have a lark about, too. I’m with my pals, Ma - we look out for each other.’
She didn’t say anything, just gazed at him as if the rest of the world had melted away and there was no one left but the two of them.
‘Good for you!’ Aunt Lizzie patted Tom on the back. ‘William, you should be proud of your brave son.’
‘And so I am,’ Da said, shaking Tom’s hand. ‘When will you be off abroad, my boy?’
‘I’m not sure. Not till after Christmas, at least,’ he replied - whereupon Ma burst into tears.
‘Now don’t be like that, Pol.’ Aunt Lizzie put an arm around her shoulder. ‘You wouldn’t think much of him if he didn’t go, would you? There have to be men to fight. That’s what this evening’s about. Didn’t you know? I’m the latest weapon in Lord Kitchener’s recruiting campaign, would you believe. Just as well our Tom’s signed up already, or you’d never speak to me again for taking him away.’
We didn’t know quite what she meant at that point, but later on, after we’d taken our seats in the gallery, the crimson velvet curtains drew back to reveal Miss Eliza Everett on stage - with a couple of tables behind her and an army officer sitting at each one. She looked so beautiful, in a shimmering silver gown that fell to the floor and a couple of the red roses pinned in her dark hair, and when she started to sing, you could feel the tingles running up and down your spine. She opened the performance with a few old favourites like ‘Show Me the Way to Go Home’ and ‘Down at the Old Bull and Bush’, which had everyone joining in, and then she began a new song, walking slowly down some steps leading from the stage into the audience.
She looked along the front row at the men sitting there and sang especially to them, reaching out as if to draw them towards her. This is how the chorus went: ‘Oh, we don’t want to lose you, but we think you ought to go, For your King and your country, both need you so …’
One man rose to his feet as though he’d been hypnotised, then another, and another, and Aunt Lizzie ushered them one by one towards the stage. She carried on down the aisle, still singing. More men got up as she approached: a couple here, another there, until soon there were too many volunteers to count. People clapped and patted them on the back as they made their way down the rows into the aisle, where the stream of men waiting to join up was fast turning into a queue, and Aunt Lizzie kept on walking and singing in that rich, thrilling voice of hers.
She’s like the Pied Piper, I thought to myself, only this time luring the grown-ups away. If I’d been a man, I would have answered the call too. Listening to Eliza Everett made you feel there was nothing you couldn’t do. She was offering you the chance to leave behind your ordinary, everyday self and turn into some glorious hero whose name would live for ever. Who could turn that down?
None of us had much of an appetite at supper, except for Tom and Johnny Sylvester; anyway, we agreed the Chicken à la King wasn’t a patch on Mrs Jeakes’. If it hadn’t been for Aunt Lizzie telling us about her tour of America in the spring, we would have been a very quiet table in the middle of that noisy café. I could count on the fingers of one hand the number of times we’d eaten out, yet I couldn’t really enjoy it, knowing I’d have to say goodbye to my darling brother at the end of the evening. We didn’t even know whether he’d be able to come home for Christmas.
‘Now don’t you go worrying about me,’ he said, hugging me tight. ‘I’ve got my chums with me - we’ll be all right. Look after Ma, won’t you?’
Aunt Lizzie had a different message with her farewell kiss. ‘Everything’s up in the air, Gracie,’ she whispered in my ear, clasping me against the soft velvet bodice of her evening gown. ‘You get out of that kitchen and make something of yourself.’