How to Time Travel Without a Time Machine
Short of stepping into a time machine, how do writers think themselves into the mind of characters who lived hundreds of years ago?
In my novel The House Where It Happened, set in 1711, my protagonist is a 19-year-old servant girl called Ellen Hill. The challenge for me was to breathe life into her convincingly.
First, I had to work out how she spent her day, whether she had any leisure time (hardly any; as a servant in a middle class household she was run off her feet), her speech patterns, how she dressed, what she ate, her family background, friendships and desires.
It’s always more challenging to chart the experiences of someone from a humble station, because how they lived and loved is less likely to be recorded. History books linger on the adventures of the posh folk.
But I had a particular reason for wanting to tell my story through the eyes of a servant in a house reputed to be haunted, as Knowehead House was. A servant is invisible. She can move easily from room to room, listening to the conversations of its occupants without attracting attention. She can straddle two worlds – that of her so-called betters, and her own milieu.
Scotland was only 13 miles away from Islandmagee in Co Antrim, where the book is set. The county was full of Lowland Scots settlers, so her speech patterns would have been permeated with Scottish colloquialisms. I had great fun researching Ulster Scots dialect: some of the words I knew, like hoke for rummage, but others were new to me, such as thrapple for choke or pockle for fool. Here’s my favourite: skitter-jabs for freckles. Equally, I knew I had to avoid the pitfalls of ‘thee’ and ‘thou’ anachronisms.
Ellen was a maid-of-all work, which meant her primary responsibility was to keep the household running. No job too messy or menial. In an era long before central heating was thought of, keeping Knowehead House warm would have been labour intensive and dirty work. So I had start the day, in a voluminous apron to protect her clothes, by cleaning out ashes and lighting fires. Later, she went into the bedrooms to make the beds and pick up night gowns, and at that I realised she would have had to remove chamber pots and dispose of their contents. That detail led me to research midden pits and where they would have been located in the yard.
What did she clean with? Apart from elbow grease? Rummaging round in contemporaneous documents, from diaries to letters, I discovered rhubarb leaves were useful for cleaning blood stains, and chalk lifted grease marks. Once I began to consider her responsibilities, I realised her hands must have been sore and her nails broken. So I had her tell us: “My hands were like lumps of raw meat at the end of the day.” At least she would have slept soundly at night.
Islandmagee was a rural community, and people would have grown most of the food they ate, and reared the animals destined for their table. Sometimes, my Ellen would have had to wring the necks of chickens – she can’t have been squeamish. The house was lit by candles, and Ellen would have had to make them. She’d have churned butter, made cheese, sewed and darned, possibly washed clothes (though washerwomen were used) and generally worked her fingers to the bone. But she’d have eaten well, and maybe helped herself to a sip of the wine or brandy served to her master and mistress. Who wouldn’t, in her shoes? And in showing her do that, the spirit of the character peeks through.
I grew fond of Ellen, and as I tried to understand her life, I wanted to show she was no complainer. That she accepted her lot, as most people did in her position. So I had her tell us: “It was no great odds, I was born to be a worker. From I was no age, Ma told me I should thank the Good Lord for fashioning me hale and hearty, because a strong back would outlast a pretty visog (face).”
Servants in homes such as the one where she lived would have existed cheek by jowl with their employers. They may have been housed in the attic – or even slept on the kitchen floor, in more humble homes – but the houses weren’t particularly spacious. There must have been times when they were all of the inhabitants were intensely conscious of one another. Particularly in households where the servant was an attractive – or at least an available – young woman, and the master had a roving eye.
Such a set of circumstances are chronicled in Pepys’s diaries, where he fancied his wife’s companion named Deborah Willett or “Deb” as he referred to her. In 1668, they embarked on a relationship – and when his wife discovered it, she not only had the girl dismissed but threatened to attack her physically.
I wondered how it would be for my decent, loyal Ellen if her master took a shine to her. Who was a servant to turn to in such circumstances? The mistress wouldn’t protect her – more likely, she’d blame her for tempting the master. And if she did give in to his coaxing, allowing a little romance into her humdrum life, pregnancy was a risk. That meant disaster – she’d lose her position.
I looked up fashion books on the period to see what people wore, and discovered that someone in her position would have dressed in dull colours – not because she disliked fine feathers but because she didn’t have access to them. On Islandmagee, ordinary people wore blue or grey clothes because those were the only dyes available. Rainbow shades signalled status: they were shop-bought. But the human heart is drawn to colour, and ribbons – reserved for best – were affordable and would have offered some brightness and gaiety.
Of course, there is more to fleshing out characters than showing the practicalities of how they lived – their exterior life. What about the interior life? My Ellen had longings – to be sure, she did. And that’s where the imagination enters, and the novelist takes over from the researcher. Being poor or plain were no barriers to having dreams 300 years ago, any more than they are today. I give her hopes. And while I’m about it, I try to give her some fun, too.