I just came across this book in among some things that once belonged to my mum. It’s very small, about 8.5cm by 6cm with a very pretty embossed cover. I didn’t remember seeing it before and I was pleased to find it as my mum and I shared a love of miniature books. But I felt a strange sensation when I opened it.It has a handwritten dedication, ‘To my dear little Lily, with Auntie’s love. Oct 16th 1866.’ It was the date of 1866 that gave me a turn because, by coincidence, that’s the year in which the principal event of my book, The Apprentice of Split Crow Lane, takes place.
My book is non-fiction, a forensic investigation of an awful child murder committed near Gateshead (in the North of England) in April 1866. In going into what happened in as much detail as possible, through newspaper and court reports, I discovered an aspect of Victorian society that felt very different from the version represented by this little children’s book, which may seem to us like a more recognisable image of the nineteenth century.Here’s a charming and innocent set of illustrations about little girls and their dolls set in a vaguely rural idyll and accompanied by little rhymes. It’s in sharp contrast with the rather graphic details of the murder that were reproduced in newspapers at the time and which surprised me with their frankness, although they are not unduly sensationalist.Yet even in the little picture book, I began to see hints of the darker world which the victim of ‘my’ murder had inhabited. She was called Sarah Melvin and was aged 5. It was when she was out walking across Carr’s Hill on her own (which was nothing unusual) that she was taken. And isn’t that an angel in the previous picture — so is that little girl in a pink dress asleep among the roses or…?The two little girls who inhabit the book have a brother, Frederick, who taunts and teases them and generally makes their life a misery. Without wanting to give too much away, this also resonates with my book, which looks in part at how difficult life could be during this period for young people, especially those who found it hard to fit in. So what seemed initially to be a rather shocking contrast between light and dark aspects of mid-Victorian society ended up being much more closely related.
The Apprentice of Split Crow Lane is published in hardback on 3 November 2016 (£20), for Kindle on the same date (£13.99) and in paperback on 27 August 2017 (£8.99) by riverrun, an imprint of Quercus Books.