Reading online that a couple have been charged with arson and the killing of their six children reminds me very much of those coroner reports from 1690 that prompted my Giles Gimingham stories in the first place.
There were so many unexplained “accidents” involving house fires in King’s Lynn, where young children perished or drownings, where any rescue attempt by parents “came too late”, it seems incredible that such careless should have prevailed as the order of the day.
Children then as now are entirely at the mercy of their parents and when those, who are supposed to care for them and cherish them are driven to such despair by grinding poverty that they’d rather see their children dead than suffer deprivation any longer, the fate of children is often sealed by death.
At the start of my seafaring adventure stories Giles is 15-years-old. Aiming at a young adult audience this time, I felt there were such moving accounts contained in the 17th century coroners’ reports, the stories had to be told to remember the children and their short lives. Poverty among weavers in particular was very bad and debtors often languished in debtors’ prison without any hope of ever coming out alive. Their wives and children either ended up in the workhouse – mother and children would often be split up – or even worse, begging in the streets or forced into prostitution.
An influx of Huguenot immigrants made matters worse for a while, as Norfolk suddenly ad many more mouths to feed. Babies and toddlers in particular were at risk, often “looked after” by their siblings, who were themselves far too young for such a responsibility; very small children often accidentally “fell into the hearth” and were burned alive or “accidentally” drowned in the canals or in ditches. Their parents claimed they had been out working at the time and could not be everywhere at once.
The widespread poverty and threat of starvation also prompted many young adults and children to end their own lives. That’s how my story begins – with the apparent suicide of a young girl called Sarah, a childhood friend of Giles’.
What starts out as a detective story within a smugglers’ adventure, continues in the second instalment with Giles being a year older and now far more “mature”. He is no longer alone in the world, he has friends who try to help him. Going to sea now, he comes across piracy, then still widespread on all the oceans but particularly on the route Giles and the ship The Good Intent are taking – Jamaica.
For stories set in another century I feel it is important to really give my young readers a flavour of the times and lives of young people, their hardships, their small victories and their struggle for survival in a very hostile adult world. At the same time, I don’t want to overwhelm them with facts. Using food and general attire is quite good, as both are things we can relate to quite easily. One can find a wealth of information about old recipes and the cuisine of a particular country at a point in history and of course the wonderful Victoria and Albert Museum as well as other museums around the world generally publish a lot of information about dress code through the centuries. It covers several of our senses: touch, smell, taste and sight, so all I have to do is add “sound” in the form of music.
The “soundtrack” to any historic novel is of course quite different to what we have to today. There are the waves and wind when sailing on the ocean, the shouts and bellows of the sailors when in harbour and the creaking of planks, when the ship is being loaded, the bleating of animals being herded below deck…and the crying of children trying to sleep with an empty belly that hasn’t seen food for days.
Once on board a cabin boy or child recruit in the navy would have an incredibly hard life. Many died, either by being brutalised by the grown men on board, swept overboard during storms or from injuries incurred while carrying out their numerous and often dangerous duties.
Many parts of the Western world – Britain included – have reached such a wide gap between those who have and those who do not that reports about child deaths are getting more and more frequent now. Although it has to be noted that sometimes a parent kills out of jealousy, because their partner has taken up with another lover. In order to destroy the other partner’s happiness, a parent kills the children out of selfishness. Such cases have also been in the news a lot more of late.
Infanticide caused by poverty and financial hardship also seems to make a return – we do not know at this point what prompted the parents in this most recent case to have allegedly set fire to their house, but with so many British people being in huge personal debt situations, infanticide is a horror from history that seems to be repeating itself at least once a month now across our television screens.
Then and now the root to such extreme parental behaviour lies mostly in the greed of others, who exploit the most vulnerable people. The way we treat our children and young people reflects on our society as a whole. Can we truly call ourselves a civilization, when we value our young so little, demonise them in the press or kill them rather than see them happy with a step-parent? Who are we to determine that our children are better off dead in times of financial hardship?
When reading the news of late, so little seems to have changed since the real Giles Gimingham lived in King’s Lynn in 1690, I’m beginning to wonder, if I’m not writing a “contemporary” tale.
(source of gif animations: heathersanimations.com)