• Polly's Story •
Swallowcliffe Hall, 1890
Polly Perkins can hardly believe her luck when she is taken on as under-housemaid at Swallowcliffe Hall. At first it's all she can do to keep up, with endless fires to be laid and beds to be made, never mind when guests arrive from London for a country house party. Will she ever feel at home in this grand old house, full of whispers and ghosts from the past? Yet friendship and comfort may be found in unexpected places, and Polly slowly becomes used to her new life - until the discovery of a tragic secret tests her loyalty to the Vye family. When a young American heiress comes to stay at the Hall, Polly must decide whether now is the time to reveal what she knows.
'I first read this book, which is the first in the Swallowcliffe Hall series, when I was researching Victorian servants and it has remained one of my favourite books since.' Stephanie, Goodreads
I had the idea for a series of books set around a grand English country house some ten years ago, and 'Polly's Story', the first book in the 'Swallowcliffe Hall' series was published in 2005 in the UK by Simon and Schuster under the title 'House of Secrets', to be followed by 'Standing in the Shadows' ('Grace's Story') in 2006 and 'Shelter from the Storm' ('Isobel's Story') in 2007. When 'Downton Abbey' became so popular on television, I decided to release these three stories as ebooks, and was delighted when they sold widely in the US as well as Britain. I then wrote another book in the series, 'Eugenie's Story', focussing on the 'upstairs' side of the house, and in time, I hope to tell what happens when Kate, Edward Vye's wife, becomes mistress of Swallowcliffe Hall in her turn.
So how did Swallowcliffe Hall emerge? The image came into my head of a mother and daughter saying goodbye to each other at the gates of a large country house … and there was the beginning of my story. Thinking about it, I realised there must have been many parallels between the worries of a Victorian girl and one on the threshold of some big adventure today – perhaps starting at a new school, or going on a journey away from her family for the first time. Am I wearing the right clothes? Will I know where to go, what to do? Will anyone talk to me? Will I make friends? In the back of my mind were probably my own feelings of loneliness when I started at boarding school, that sense of desolation as my parents’ car vanished around the corner, leaving me behind. In fact, the original opening to ‘House of Secrets’ might have been influenced by these emotions a little too much:
‘It was still early when we arrived at the gates of the big house, my mother and I. We had risen in the dark, leaving the sleeping village soon after, and a couple of hours’ steady walking had brought us here. The coachman would have come to collect me the evening before, but I wanted to make the most of the last precious time we had together at home and had decided to make my own way to the Hall that morning. There could be no turning back; the new year had begun and with it, a new life for me. I reached for my mother’s warm hand in the depths of her shawl and held it tight for comfort. But when her eyes met mine, all I could see were my own fears and anxieties mirrored there. All the love I had ever felt for my dear family and my home, poor though it was, suddenly rushed over me like a wave and I clung to Mother, feeling as if my heart would break at the very thought of leaving her.’
I like the rhythm of these sentences, but when I came to know my heroine, Polly Perkins, a little better, I realised this behaviour was much too drippy for her. She wasn’t the sort of girl who’d cling on to anyone. (That’s what I love most about writing: the moment when your characters start acting for themselves). So I rewrote the beginning – something I’ve had to do with every one of my books – starting the action after Polly and her mother had already said goodbye. This helps to make her arrival at the Hall more immediate and dramatic, and also solves the problem of getting Polly from the gates, up the drive and into the house (a rather boring passage in my first version). Here’s the revised beginning to ‘Polly’s Story’. See if you think it’s better!
I stood on the doorstep of the big house, my heart thumping so hard it was fit to jump out of my chest, raised the knocker and brought it down with a clap that echoed around the empty courtyard. A couple of pigeons pecking at crumbs on the cobblestones fluttered up into the air; such a great noise in that quiet place startled me too, even though I had made it myself. For two pins I would have taken up my basket and run all the way home, but there could be no turning back now: the new year had begun and with it, a new life for me. I had arrived to start work as under housemaid at Swallowcliffe Hall - if only someone would let me in.
I wished now that I had come by train and let the coachman pick me up from the station, as the housekeeper had suggested when I came for my interview a couple of weeks before. That had seemed a great deal of fuss at the time, however, so my mother and I had decided to beg a lift halfway on the dairy cart, and walk the rest. It was a frosty January morning but we were wrapped up against the cold, and tramping along the country lanes helped keep us warm. I wanted to put off the moment when we had to part for as long as possible, and maybe my mother felt the same. We have always been close, especially since my father died, and I could not bear the thought of leaving her.
‘Now chin up, Polly,’ she had told me as we stood together by the tall iron gates at the top of the drive. ‘You’re as good as anyone else, and better than most. Work hard and remember your manners, and no one will have any cause for complaint.’
Then she pressed a small paper package into my hand, telling me to open it later, and hugged me tight. A boy came out of the lodge to open the side gate and let me through; by the time I looked again, my mother was walking away down the long avenue of oak trees on either side of the road. The gate clanged shut, with me on one side and everything I knew and loved on the other. I had to bite my tongue not to call after her, feeling as though I had been abandoned in some strange foreign country to fend for myself as best I could. But then I noticed the gatekeeper’s boy staring at me - probably wondering how much longer I planned to stand there, moping - so I took Mother’s words to heart, straightened my shoulders and set off down the drive with as much courage as I could muster.
Fancy me, becoming part of a gentleman’s household! There had been Vyes at Swallowcliffe for hundreds of years, and the present Lord Vye was talked about with a great deal of respect throughout the whole of Kent. I could hardly believe my luck when the housekeeper told me she would take me on. I would be on a month’s trial, mind, since I was only fourteen and she did not know whether I would be able to manage the work. If I had not been tall for my age and with such a good character reference from my previous employers, Reverend Conway and his daughter, I’m sure she would never have considered it. I had read Miss Conway’s letter so many times, I knew it off by heart:
'Olive Perkins has been employed as a general servant at the vicarage for the past eighteen months, and I can vouch for her as a steady, industrious girl of good character. She has a quiet, pleasant manner and comes from a respectable church-going family who have fallen on hard times through no fault of their own. Olive does not mind heavy work: she is healthy and strong for her years. She knows how to clean and polish thoroughly and is skilled at needlework, both plain and fancy.'
Olive was the name I had been christened with, although everyone has called me Polly since I was a baby. I suppose Miss Conway thought that Polly Perkins did not sound a sufficiently serious kind of person to be employed at Swallowcliffe, and that Olive would be more suitable.
Being the oldest of four children, it was taken for granted that I would start earning my living as soon as possible to help provide for the family. I had begun by scrubbing floors and backyards on a Saturday for any of our neighbours who could spare the odd penny or a slice of bread, and that is how I came to know Miss Conway. She took a liking to me, which was a great stroke of luck after all the sad things that had happened to us (my mother also having lost the baby she was carrying shortly after my father died). Eventually I came to the vicarage as a maid-of-all-work when I turned twelve. The Conways could only afford to pay me eight pounds a year, but my meals were provided for me - although it has to be said that Miss Conway ate no more than a sparrow and assumed I would do the same. She trained me in all sorts of household duties, from blackleading the kitchen range to sweeping a carpet with damp tea leaves so the dust won’t fly about, plus everything you could possibly want to know about dusting, polishing and making beds, and a lot more besides. I learnt a great deal and managed to save enough to buy a black uniform dress ready for my next position. Then, as if by fate, my mother heard that they were looking for a housemaid at the Hall; the girl who was leaving happened to be a niece of one of our neighbours. News travels fast in a village like Little Rising, with the cottages clustered so close together and somebody usually hanging over their garden fence for a gossip.
I think Miss Conway was sorry to see me go, since I was a hard worker and we had rubbed along together very well. She gave me a leather-bound prayer book on my last day at the vicarage, and the print frock I was wearing that morning. ‘It will look better on you than an old maid like me,’ she said. I couldn’t help but agree - Miss Conway not being overly blessed in the looks department, despite having all sorts of other virtues. Without wishing to sound vain, I thought the dress suited me very well. It was made from a striped crimson cotton and had a full skirt with several frilled petticoats underneath and wide flounced sleeves. Although it was a little too big for me around the waist, I am handy with a needle and soon had it altered to fit almost perfectly.
I might have felt quite pleased with myself in our little cottage, with the neighbours so jealous of my good luck and my younger sisters and brother telling me how fine I looked, but now I had arrived at the Hall itself, all the courage I possessed seemed to drain out through my boots. I will try to describe the place as best I can, though you would have to see Swallowcliffe for yourself to understand its magic. The main house is three storeys high, built from a silvery-grey stone. There is a slate roof with dormer windows set into it, a parapet around the edge and a little round tower in the middle which I think is called a cupola. On top of that is the weather vane: a golden swallow who swings about as the wind takes him, looking out over the formal gardens and the lake to the south of the house, or the winding drive and avenue of oak trees to the north, or east and west across miles of rolling parkland to the wooded hills which rise up behind.