Maggie Richell-Davies is the winner of the first HWA/Sharpe Books Unpublished Novel Award. She tells Historia about her now-published novel, The Servant, and her journey to publication by Sharpe Books: “Be persistent,” she advises. “But above all find competitions that put your story under the nose of someone who loves the past.”
There was no spare money for books when I was growing up, but my mother had a passion for history, and home was littered with library books – about the English Civil War, the Tolpuddle Martyrs, the discovery of Pompeii – and I eagerly read them all. And while time, and my own library ticket, have brought a love for literary fiction, history has never let me go.
But it struck me, even back then, that the women in the stories tended to be fair maidens courted by medieval knights or regency bucks. The lives of the female working poor were largely unseen. If you came across a maidservant, she was often a two-dimensional extra existing in the shadow of her mistress. The Brontë sisters provided insight into the often barren lives of governesses, but where were the scrub-women, the child-minders and the cooks? What about their stories?
My working life was as a PA, except for a period selling advertising space in San Francisco. But if you write, and adore nothing better than a good book, you eventually yearn to put the written word onto your own pages. So – in my spare time – I began writing, then entering competitions.
Rejections were the norm, but eventually my stuff appeared on longlists and (finally) shortlists. I joined a local novel-writing class and learned about technique. Then I became part of a group of like-minded writers whom I’d met there. It was the best thing I ever did.
In 2015 I discovered London’s Foundling Hospital Museum. It is an emotive place and I couldn’t get the heart-breaking stories it told out of my head. The bits of ribbon or lace or coins desperate mothers left in the hope that they might, one day, be able to retrieve their precious child made me both sad and angry.
I came away with publications from the museum’s bookshop and was sucked into research on women in 18th-century London. So many of those betrayed by their menfolk, and abandoned by a society with no social safety net, were of the serving class, either above or below stairs.
Founded by Royal Charter in 1739, the London Foundling Hospital came into existence after 17 years of effort by a retired sea captain, William Coram, to make ‘Provision for Foundlings.’ His eventual success was due, to a great extent, to his gaining the support of 16 ladies of high rank, headed by the Duchess of Somerset. Their signatures on The Ladies‘ Petition was presented to George III in 1735.
Historians know how research can become an obsession, but I thought I’d finally put my project to bed by writing a 2,000-word story. The Gingham Square, about a girl forced to take her baby to the Foundling Hospital, was entered into a Fish competition which offered the bonus of a critique of one’s work. The story (fortunately, as it turned out) failed to be placed, but my reader provided the feedback that what I’d written was too overwhelming for the short story form, but had the potential for a book. One she thought I was capable of writing.
I returned to my research – and The Servant was the result.
It is, of course, a work of fiction, but it was not difficult for me to sift out from social history an idea of the lives that these women on the margins of history endured. Some were betrayed by sweethearts; others were taken advantage of by their employers. Many were made destitute by pure misfortune and their powerlessness in a male-dominated society.
Women today openly question how a patriarchial society can be allowed to rule them, but in the past protesting was virtually impossible, especially for those with no education. It could even be dangerous.
Soon, I began sending my manuscript to agents and getting positive feedback: “I’ve loved everything I’ve read so far.” “Thank you for contacting! I’d love to read the rest.” “This is terrific.”
But requests for the full manuscript were followed by rejections and frustrating requests to see my next book. Then an eventual one-to-one with an agent revealed the problem: my story was too dark. Too unpalatable.
I could have written a different book, but I wanted to shine a light on lives rarely examined. That of many of our great-great-great grandmothers.
I realised that I needed to entice my reader into my story by making it a page-turning thriller; by creating a heroine he or she would really care about, but who was in danger. I also threw in a love story. And, of course, a dog.
Then, last September, I was excited to learn from the pages of Writing Magazine about the HWA/Sharpe Books 2020 Unpublished Novel Award. Surely these people would care about women with darned stockings and blisters on their thumbs? To my utter delight, after the excitement of being shortlisted, I was told that I had won a publishing deal with Sharpe Books.
Here was validation of my conviction that people would care about women on the sidelines of history. There is a certain rightness in the fact that it took a historian to see what I was trying to achieve with my story.
For history is not just about the past. It can teach us how to approach the future.
I will no more be able to stop writing than to reach for a cappuccino and a chocolate digestive, and there are three books on my hard drive, in varying stages of development, so watch this space.
Meanwhile, do let me encourage other unpublished writers of historical fiction to be persistent. To engage with like-minded friends who will encourage you. But above all to find competitions that put your story under the nose of someone who loves the past as much as you do.
Maggie Davies was born in Newcastle and has a first-class honours degree from the Open University.
Her debut novel, The Servant, won the Historical Writers’ Association 2020 Unpublished Novel Award, together with a publishing contract from Sharpe Books.
The book was inspired by a visit to London’s Foundling Hospital Museum, with its heart-breaking stories about the tokens desperate women left there in the hope that they might, one day, be able to reclaim their child.
Maggie has had short stories published, been shortlisted for the Bridport Flash and Olga Sinclair Awards and longlisted for the Exeter Novel Award. She is a member of the Historical Writers’ Association and the Romantic Novelists’ Association.
Read Historia’s interview with Richard Foreman, founder of Sharpe Books and a judge of the HWA/Sharpe Books 2020 Unpublished Novel Award.
The Foundling Museum has inspired another HWA member, Stacey Halls, to write a novel: her second, The Foundling. Read Stacey’s Historia feature about the background to her book.
Part of William Hogarth‘s portrait of his servants: via Wikimedia
The Foundling Museum: via Wikimedia
The Foundling Hospital Holborn, London: a bird’s-eye view, coloured engraving after L. P. Boitard, 1753: via Wikimedia
La fille de cuisine (The Scullery Maid) by Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin: via Wikimedia