Holly Webb has two new books published this month, the first instalments in a new Victorian detective series, featuring a plucky heroine by the name of Maisie Hitchins. To celebrate their publication I asked Holly if she would share with us some thoughts about her favourite children’s books set in Victorian times. Here’s what Holly had to say:
“This was a very good excuse to reread lots of bits from my favourite children’s books ever, actually. The Maisie books are a loving tribute to the Sherlock Holmes stories, which I adored at about the age of ten (see the photo below – I have no idea why I have my eyes closed. I was probably just being annoying.) But I loved reading books set in the past, particularly the Victorian/Edwardian era.
One of my grandmothers was born in 1912, which seemed a very long time ago, but still somehow linked to my own life. It seemed amazing that she had been alive at the time that Conan Doyle’s later Holmes stories were published, and LM Montgomery wrote the Anne books. I read these over and over – the heartbreaking idea that she wasn’t wanted because she was a girl fascinated me, but it was the background to her story that I really loved. It seemed so other, with the Canadian rural setting – even more so than the Holmes stories, which were mostly about London. At about the same time as I read Anne, and also Little Women and its sequels, I discovered an ancient, fat, dark blue leather book of my mother’s called, The Wide Wide World by Elizabeth Wetherell. We actually had two versions – the other was abridged and illustrated by Joyce Lankester Brisley, who wrote Milly-Molly-Mandy, probably with an awful lot of the moralising cut out. But there was something fascinating about the original, with the leather binding and gilded flowers on the front. It felt like a historical artefact, I suppose.
The British counterpoint to all these American stories (I had Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm too, and What Katy Did) was Lark Rise to Candleford. I bought this from a car boot sale, when I was in my last year of junior school, and I remember Laura being about the same age as me for the first part of the book. It was less story than social history, but I found it even better for knowing that most of it was true.
Although I loved all the books I’ve mentioned, my real favourite, by a long way, was A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett. (I liked The Secret Garden as well, but I found both Mary and Colin deeply annoying.) When I started to write the Rose books, the first books I wrote with a Victorian (ish) setting, I went back and reread A Little Princess. I remembered it being wonderfully atmospheric about Edwardian London, with poor Sara starving in the attic bedroom, with her pet rat (I wanted one, but wasn’t allowed, due to the smell). There’s a fantastic scene where Sara is out shopping for Miss Minchin, the cruel head of the school where she has been abandoned. She’s starving, and she finds a silver fourpence in the gutter, and uses it to buy buns, most of which she gives to a beggar child outside the shop. But the coldness, and the grey street, are described so clearly, and then the delicious smell of the hot bread. It really is the most fantastic fairy story, and completely readable, even a hundred years after it was written. I’ve actually just gone back and read most of it while writing this, it was irresistible!”
Thank you, Holly, for such a lovely insight into your childhood favourites.
Publishers website about Maisie Hitchins: