The characters of Lady Hardcastle and Florence Armstrong were created long before I decided to put them into their own series of murder mysteries.
My knowledge of domestic service in England in the early 20th century came, as it did for many people of my generation, from the 1970s TV series Upstairs Downstairs. Recently, that impression has been reinforced by Downton Abbey and the reboot of Upstairs Downstairs. These series are all about large, rich families and their extensive households. They’re about “us and them” – the title “Upstairs Downstairs” even has an element of “us and them” in it – and I began to wonder about that. As a dramatic device it’s excellent and provides a pleasing range of conflicts and alliances between and among the two, very distinct, groups.
What I began to wonder, though, is how typical that was. Not every household was that huge, and there were many where there were smaller families and smaller groups of servants. There must, I thought, have been many where there was one employer and one servant.
So what, I wondered, would happen there? What would happen when “us and them” became “me and you”? Most of the time, not that much, I thought. But what might happen when that relationship was put under stress? What would happen when those two people, those two people who lived together and shared their lives but were pushed apart by social convention, were forced to rely on each other? Would the social barriers break down? Would employer and employee become genuine friends? Would they acknowledge an emotional bond as well as a contractual one.
I decided that if they were both men, then possibly not. English men are conditioned from birth to maintain an emotional distance from even their best friends. They might know each other for decades but they’ll never admit how much they mean to each other. English women, on the other hand, are less burdened by that particular social convention and might more readily allow their friendship to take precedence over class rules.
And so that’s where Lady Hardcastle and her maid, Florence, came from; they were created as a way to explore that relationship. I put them in India, I had Lady Hardcastle’s husband die, and then I had her and her maid make the long journey home to England with no one to rely on but each other. And then I stopped. This was way beyond my abilities. This was a proper novel, the sort of thing that needed to be written by a proper novelist.
So they were put to one side.
And then one day I hit upon the idea of writing a murder mystery. I’ve been a fan of murder mysteries for most of my life. I would never have said that if I’d been asked, because I didn’t really know, but now I think about it, it’s always been true. I watch cosies and police procedurals on the telly. I read Sherlock Holmes, I listen to Agatha Christie audiobooks on my commute. I was a mystery fan, but just someone who never said it out loud. And so when I eventually hit upon the idea of writing a murder mystery, I wondered why I’d never thought of it before.
But who would be my detective? Where would it be set? When?
And, of course, I had some ready-made characters. To make the original situation work they had to be Victorian, or at the very latest Edwardian, so they came with a ready-made situation, too. It seemed as though it all might work perfectly.
I made their backstory a little more adventurey and fun, putting them in China rather than India – this made their journey home a little more eventful and gave Florence the chance to learn a martial art (which still amuses me) – but their relationship was the same and I thought they’d make an excellent detective and sidekick.
So that’s how we ended up with detective stories about an Edwardian widow and her lady’s maid. Over the years I might well end up exploring the questions I was intending to pose in the original novel (as long as I don’t spoil the slightly silly atmosphere), but I’m pleased with the relationship that has already emerged so whatever else happens is going to be a bonus.