When it comes to fictional female characters, I make no secret of my admiration for staunch women, not least those who look adversity in the eye & give as good as they get. As a feminist who writes them, I want to read them too. And in The Ferryman’s Daughter, by Juliet Greenwood – her first novel for Orion Books, published 14th May 2020 – I was delighted to encounter the redoubtable Hester Pearce.
I gave Juliet carte blanche to describe how both fictional and real life strong women inspired and influenced her wonderful heroine.
Thank you & over to you, Juliet!
My inspiration for Hester, the heroine of my first book for Orion, The Ferryman’s Daughter, originated in a real-life woman I’ve been itching to weave into a story for years. The moment Hester appeared, with her passion for cooking and her determination to set up her own cafe against the odds, I knew she was the one.
Hester’s real life inspiration was Rosa Lewis, who was the basis for the popular TV series ‘The Duchess of Duke Street’, which first ran in the 1970s, but is still repeated here in the UK. Born in the Victorian era, when a woman was expected to be simply the shadow of a husband, with no legal existence of her own, Rosa Lewis was one of those who rebelled. Although she started life as a kitchen maid, she rose by means of skill and hard work to be a renowned chef, including for royalty, and eventually becoming the owner of her own hotel in London. Not to mention a possible affair with the Prince of Wales, but that’s another story …
From the moment I heard about her as a teenager, I loved Rosa Lewis for her determination and becoming a self-made woman. When I was growing up in the 1960s and 70s, there were very few female role models. The expectation was still that women worked for a few years until they married, then retreated into domestic invisibility as housewives, or with low-paid part-time jobs to fit in around childcare. It’s sometimes hard to remember that it’s so recently that a woman couldn’t even get a credit card or a mortgage without a male signature.
Rosa Lewis pointed me the way towards the many astute and determined women in the Victorian and Edward period whose stories have been forgotten or brushed under the carpet, but are now finally being told. When I started to read more about her life and times, I found many more stubborn and fearless women (many of them happily married to husbands who adored and supported them) who ran businesses, refused to allow an entire establishment ranged against them to prevent them from becoming doctors, and ran daring campaigns as social reformers – despite being faced with insults and missiles and sometimes physical danger. Social reformer Josephine Butler even narrowly escaped gang rape and a building set alight around her as she campaigned to prevent thirteen-year-old young girls being registered as prostitutes, to be trafficked as sex workers all across Europe. Some of her descriptions of the victims of such abuse, some as young as five, are utterly heartbreaking. It might have taken time, but, with the support of Millicent Fawcett, the leader of the suffrage movement, her utter determination did eventually win.
So when Hester came sweeping into my life, she was also inspired by the many brave and astute women who lived around the same time as Rosa Lewis. Reading their memoirs and their diary entries, the hopes and dreams and frustrations of young women of that era from all social classes feel little different from those of women today. Like Hester, they have a deep longing to be loved, but also to have a life of their own. To follow a passion. To also be the one to walk in the sun.
I loved every moment of my time spent with Hester, as she battled through to keep her brother and sister safe and her dream of love and independence alive. In many ways, she was the role model my teenage self was looking for, and might have felt a little braver going for her own dreams and pursuing her own passion, knowing that (unlike all the messages around me) it could be done.
My first book for Orion is set on the Hayle Estuary, near St Ives in Cornwall, at the time of the Great War. It is the story of Hester, who is forced to take over the family business of rowing the ferry across the river to keep a roof over their heads. But Hester has a dream of one day becoming a professional cook and opening her own establishment in St Ives, so creating a better life for herself and her family. Even with everything against her, Hester remains determined to succeed …
The Ferryman’s Daughter
Can Hester help her family escape desperate poverty and fulfil her dreams?
1908: Hester always loved her mother best, her father had always been a hard man to like, spending more time (and money) in the local than with his family. After her mother’s sudden death, followed by an injury forcing her father to give up his job as the ferryman, Hester is placed in the position of care-giver for her young brother and sister.
As the years pass Hester must row the ferry night and day to keep them all from starvation, while her hopes of working in a kitchen and one day becoming a cook, slip further and further away.
But just how far is Hester willing to go to make her dream a reality? And as the threat of war comes ever closer to the Cornish coast, will it bring opportunities or despair for Hester and her family?
Juliet Greenwood has always been a bookworm and a storyteller, writing her first novel (a sweeping historical epic) at the age of ten. She is fascinated both by her Celtic heritage and the history of the women in her family, with her great-grandmother having supported her family by nail making in Lye, in the Black Country, near Birmingham in the UK, and her grandmother by working as a cook in a large country house.
Before being published by Orion, Juliet wrote three historical novels for Honno, the Welsh Women’s Press, reaching #4 and #5 in the UK kindle store.
Juliet lives in a traditional quarryman’s cottage between the mountains and the sea in beautiful Snowdonia, in Wales in the UK, and is to be found dog walking in all weathers, always with a camera to hand…
Social media links:
Juliet’s Blog: https://julietgreenwoodauthor.wordpress.com/
Early twentieth century fictional heroines, viewed through the reading lens of twenty-first century women, have a tendency to leave those of us of a feminist persuasion, sighing in frustration as the ‘poverty-stricken, uneducated, desperate’ heroine falters at the feet of some unscrupulous, conniving, controlling man. (I’ve lost count of the times I’ve yelled at the pages of a historical novel, ‘No! Don’t do that – you don’t have to do that!’)
It was ever thus. And tends to get predictable. Backbone, in my experience, is sadly lacking in the traditional, modern historical novel. The kind that stiffens the spine of the indomitable Hester Pearce, in The Ferryman’s Daughter is a joy to encounter. And were 21st century me able to time travel back and meet her, she’d soon have me nodding my approval.
The Ferryman’s Daughter explores realities for women in the early 1900s and shows how they don’t always capitulate to the accepted mores of the time. Hester is a new girl (woman) on the block and her presence is a breath of Cornish fresh air. After her mother dies and her father – the titular ferryman – has an accident, it is down to Hester to keep her family together. That she does this, literally, against every odd known to ‘desperate’ historical novel womankind is the essence of this book. And there is nothing contrived about Hester’s quiet heroism, her determination to be fearless, even when she scared half to death.
The deeply menacing presence of Jimmy Harkness, arrogant in his assumption that Hester will succumb to his advances because she has no choice, is a revealing portrait of the kind of man women have always had to deal with, and still do. These days however it’s acceptable for us to say ‘No’ and have that wish respected. In the early 1900s, with a war on the horizon, it was a brave young woman who stood her ground and resisted the terror tactics of a man bent on her subjugation and humiliation. Hester does this and we applaud her, because over a century apart, she is us. There is plenty of tension – the author knows her craft and paces the book perfectly – moments when we genuinely fear for Hester. But she isn’t raped or battered or left for dead. She fights back and fights hard. Hester Pearce is a fictional heroine for her time and ours.
There are other heroines in this book too – women with the privileges and education Hester is denied. And this is the other splendid aspect of The Ferryman’s Daughter. These women aren’t snobs, they don’t parade their birthright or advantages; they’re supportive of each other’s endeavours, embracing an equality which Hester gradually comes to appreciate and accept. The relationships between Hester and Clara Trewarren, the daughter of gentry, and later with the enigmatic Miss Chesterfield, are both beautifully rendered. And Hester’s mother, who tried to teach her she was as good as anyone, that no dream was too big to be realised, remains, long after her death the core of Hester’s courage.
The Ferryman’s Daughter is a tour de force – it turns the concept of the traditional historical novel on its head, showing us how, like women today, there have always been smart, audacious, feisty women prepared to defy convention. Women with backbone – women whose instinct shapes their view of themselves as gutsy and capable.
There isn’t a single simpering woman in the entire book, and it is a better, more authentic and satisfying reading experience for it.