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  • Writer's pictureMaggie Davies

Taking Advantage of Charles Dickens

While I was busy editing The Servant a reader commented that they weren't able to visualise the house to which my heroine has been sent - adding that it wouldn't do any harm, while doing something to rectify that, to add pointers that it was going to be a place heaving with danger and sinister mysteries.

Being a great believer in listening to advice, I therefore rewrote the opening of Chapter Two of my book. And, being in need of something to aid my imagination, made use of a picture I had taken a couple of years previously of Dickens's London house, at 48 Doughty Street. Now a museum, I suggest it will be well worth a visit when life returns to normal.

Subsequent research revealed, sadly, that the house in which Dickens lived and wrote had not been built in 1765, when The Servant is set. However, since I am a storyteller rather than an historian, I felt it would sufficiently represent the kind of establishment I had in my mind. In particular, it had an atmospheric book-lined study. There were area railings, steps down to the servants' entrance and it appeared a likely residence for an aristocrat who had come down in the world. I tipped my hat to authenticity by making my front door green - the most fashionable door colour of the time - and the railings 'spiky' rather than black, which would then have been unlikely. And spiky is a more emotive word, anyway, for such an unwelcoming place. I also made the house a great deal shabbier.

You might like to compare the two versions.

Chapter Two

(My original draft opens with Hannah walking straight through the door of the servants' entrance into the Chalke House.)

I step into the kitchen of my new home, nostrils twitching. It stinks of old meals and rancid fat. Dirty dishes overflow the stone sink. The fire is a bare glimmer.

'You can take your things to the garret later.'

Mistress Chalke looms behind me in the doorway, skirts lifted clear of the floor, mouth turned down. Its preferred position, I've decided.

'Don't stand there, like a cow in a field. Make yourself useful.'

Chapter Two

(My improved draft has Hannah, accompanied by Mrs. Lamb, the friendly housekeeper from her previous employment, approaching the Chalke house together - so that we can see the house through their eyes.)

Mrs Lamb frowns up from the written directions in her hand to the tall, narrow house at our journey's end.

'What was Mistress Buttermere thinking? Sending you here?

Set behind spiked railings, little more than a yard from the public street, it is not somewhere you would expect a gentleman to live. The green-painted front door is chipped and flaking. The windows are grimy, with heavy curtains drawn tight across all those at ground level despite the sunny morning. Soapy water thrown over the steps has not been swept away, puddling dirty suds under our feet.

'Your new master may have fallen on hard times, but I did not expect this.' My arm is tucked in hers, and she squeezes it. 'But it is only for a year, Hannah. By then we could be back in London. I can't see Mistress Buttermere wanting to move under her son-in-law's roof. Being a widow all these years, she's lost the habit of doing any man's bidding.'

She gives me a quick hug before leading me down the steps to the servants' entrance and rapping at a tarnished knocker.

'Perhaps there's a magic carpet inside,' I murmur, 'and I'll climb onto it and fly over the seas and far away.'

'The only carpets I suspect you'll find in there will be ones in need of vigorous beating.'

My elbow is squeezed again as a rattle of bolts announces the opening of the door.

'Mistress Chalke...' Mrs Lamb starts in surprise at its being opened by the lady of the house.

The face is not welcoming.

'You have brought the girl.' Her hand grips my wrist and I catch a last glimpse of Mrs Lamb's startled eyes as I am jerked inside and the door is slammed behind me.

Then I am in the kitchen of my new home,flustered and with my nostrils twitching. The place stinks of old meals and rancid fat...

I am so glad that I took that sage advice, retreated to one of my favourite coffee shops and rewrote the chapter. Having someone apply a fresh eye to your work can make all the difference. Don't you agree?

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