Welcome to Barbara Henderson!
Last year I was completely staggered by the power of Barbara’s storytelling in her Middle Grade book Fir for Luck, which tells the story of 12 year old Janet in a village during the Highland Clearances. You can read more about that here, and I would really urge you to get your hands on a copy!
So I have been eagerly awaiting Barbara’s latest book, Punch, which is set in Victorian Scotland. The protagonist is twelve year old Phineas who finds himself in the wrong place at the wrong time. Once again Barbara skilfully takes us back in time, this time to 1889 Inverness, and tells us Phineas’ story in a thoroughly compelling style. It’s a real page-turner! Look out for a full review coming soon.
Barbara has joined us today to tell us about a rather familiar face who turns up in Punch!
A Truly Victorian Cameo
by Barbara Henderson
I’d always like Alfred Hitchcock’s hidden cameos in his films – cameos keep us on our toes. It’s the sneaking in of somebody unexpected. But if that were the true definition of a cameo, then including Queen Victoria in Punch, my new book set during the Victorian Era would not qualify as a cameo. What could be more expected and predictable than that?
Apart from the fact that my 12-year-old protagonist Phineas is hardly likely company for a reigning monarch: from a poor background, orphaned and employed as a delivery boy for a local butcher in the North of Scotland, Phineas finds himself on the run: he has been blamed for causing a huge fire in his hometown of Inverness (also my home town) and is now on the run.
It wasn’t part of my original intention to include a royal cameo at all. The real fire around which I was constructing my story happened in June 1889, and I sent my fugitive off that night. He finds shelter with travelling entertainers, becomes assistant to a ‘Punch and Judy man’ (the term ‘puppeteer’ was coined much later) and travels around Scotland. When researching other historical events in Scotland that summer, there was a mention of Queen Victoria’s stay at Balmoral. Wow, I could make these two cross paths! That would be exciting!
I did some digging. Of course, it was impossible to make my characters simply walk into the royal abode in Scotland. What public events did the Queen attend? Ah, she was patron of the Braemar gathering, just as our reigning monarch is now. Did she actually attend that summer? Much googling and shelf-searching in libraries followed. Yes, she did. But there was little information, other than the date, which worked in well with my fictional timeline.
I put out a general cry for help on Twitter: Can anyone out there give me tips of how to research the Braemar Gathering in 1889, in particular any references to the Queen’s attendance?
Responses were sparse, but I only needed one, which I got from my fellow Cranachan-author John Fulton. The lovely man had looked out the actual article in the Times Newspaper, covering the Queen’s Scotland visit and the Gathering! It was all I needed. More than I needed. It named all travelling in her company, the exact time at which she arrived, which regiment greeted her, what she was wearing, the appearance of the Royal Pavilion, the numbers in the crowd…
I was utterly delighted. As a result the chapter of the Queen’s appearance at the Braemar gathering ranks among my favourites in Punch. As a writer, I am so very chuffed with it: it is vivid and comes alive on the pager for me, just because of the information that was available in that article.
Of course there were photographs, too. Not nearly as many as I would have liked, but enough to give me a flavour of the removed, formal aura around the monarch. I read her Balmoral Diaries, too, to get a feel for her voice (she hardly speaks in Punch, but I might as well get it right for the few sentences she does say!). As someone who grew up on the continent, I had always viewed the Royal family with bemusement rather than hard and fast royalist/republican sensibilities. It was something quirky, something which made Britain Britain, but it took a leap of the imagination to put myself into the shoes of a British subject in 1889 when the Empire was at its height and loyalty to the Queen was rarely questioned.
Queen Victoria occupies a particular spot in the nation’s consciousness. Iconic, beloved, respected, a symbol of a bygone age of grandeur, associated with Dickensian nostalgia. Of course I worried about getting things wrong. And there was a near-miss, too. My characters travel with a dancing bear, a practice that was still legal at the time. Weeks before my final deadline, I discovered that Queen Victoria herself was the patron of the newly formed RSPCA, an organisation dedicated to animal welfare. Would she approve of the dancing bear? Unlikely! Cue manic re-write of that particular section, in the light of what I now knew to be true.
Just recently, I had little moment of satisfaction! I went to see the Victoria and Abdul film in the cinema. Like my book, it captures Victoria near the end of her life. At the time of writing Punch, I didn’t know such a film was being made, but Abdul features in Punch because I read about him in her Balmoral diaries. Like he does in the film, he ‘leans over obligingly to dry the ink’!
I feel the royal cameo adds something special to Punch – something authentic and old-fashioned, and truly Victorian.
I can only hope that my readers will agree.
Well, I am just in the middle of reading Punch, and yes I definitely do agree, Barbara! It’s such an amazing story, told at a cracking pace. And the setting is fantastic. Phineas will capture readers’ hearts for sure, and is perfect for readers aged 9+.
To find out more about Barbara and her books visit http://www.barbarahenderson.co.uk/punch/
You can also find her on twitter as @scattyscribbler .
I hope you enjoy Punch as much as I do! Happy reading 🙂
It’s been an absolute honour to be part of the PUNCH blog tour.
Many thanks to Cranachan publishing.
Pippa Wilson 22nd October 2017