Hello. My author has asked me to introduce myself. My name is James Blakiston. I’m in my twenties and I’m land agent on the estate of Lord Ravenshead in County Durham in the Northeast of England. Really, the work is a backward step for me. My father was a landowner in Dorset, though not on such a scale as Lord Ravenshead and I expected to inherit eventually and to live there with a well-born woman, but my father invested foolishly, lost everything he had and ended his life in the Marshalsea, a debtor’s prison. A cousin spoke to his Lordship on my behalf and I was taken on in this position. My younger brother joined the Navy as a midshipman. Things were worse for our sister; she is now a governess and I’m afraid she really doesn’t care for children. But that’s how life is; you take what it hands you and you make the best of it.
It’s the mid-1760s I’m speaking to you from and I’m afraid Durham is a rough sort of place compared with my Dorset home, but I’ve come to love it here. It was my author who brought me into life and I must say I’m grateful to him
And now my author has slipped a note in front of me saying, tell them what the books you are in are about. And that’s an interesting question, especially given my background as gentry. John Lynch is my author, and he has always loved historical fiction, but instead of writing about the aristocracy and the gentry, people like me, as so much historical fiction does, he wanted to show the lives of the working poor. Agricultural labourers, coal miners, people without education who live a precarious life from day to day. I’m face to face every day with farmers who are raising themselves into the middling sort, as we say now, but also with day labourers and people for whom there’s no work at all. And it’s been fascinating.
And this is a bit personal, but I fell in love with a labourer’s daughter. Kate Greener, a spirited girl. Of course it’s impossible and I know that. There’s a neighbouring landowner who has an unmarried female cousin and he wants to settle £500 a year on me and have me wed the woman and live in Hoppyland Hall, which is one of his properties. Obviously for a man in my position, that’s the thing to do. I’d be restored to something like the life I’d expected and I’d be received in society. But still…
And then there’s a murder, well, two murders in fact, and it falls to me to find the person responsible.
I don’t know how it came to be that John Lynch called me up out of his mind. As far as I can tell, I just met a need. Some writers are like that; they think, how am I going to tell this story? and they decide they need a particular person and, boom, there you are, born out of nothing. What I think is he wanted to show how life looked to the people at the very bottom of the heap and he decided the best way to do that was to have someone who’d been born into the gentry and fallen far enough to be able to examine the lives of the poor in a way that most people like me would never do. It’s amazing, you know, but the poor can be invisible to the wealthy. The rector, for example. He simply doesn’t see them. I have to say his wife is an example to us all, but there you are. She was born the daughter of a common seaman who became a sea captain and she brought the rector a thousand a year, so she straddles both classes too.
I’ve met some very interesting people while I’ve been here and part of this book. I probably shouldn’t be saying this, but of course there’s Kate. Kate Greener. Kate was born into the lowest class and in the life I was born to I don’t suppose I’d ever have noticed her, but she really is the most captivating person I’ve ever met. If I had expected anything, which I didn’t because I never thought about it, it would have been that the poor would be ground down with all the spirit extracted from them. But Kate is an example of how indomitable a human being can be. But the whole thing’s impossible, of course. Quite impossible. I have to put her right out of my mind.
If only it were that simple.
And then there’s Tom Laws, a farmer’s son, but the second son, so not much of a life in store, but then he gets a chance and he takes it. Thomas is the kind of young man a father would be proud to acknowledge.
And, of course, there’s the rector. He’s a snob who doesn’t know he’s a snob, but we’ve become good friends.
If I think about the nastiest character, well I suppose I should say the Honourable Thomas Ravenshead because he mistreats Kate’s older sister in the most shameful way and I suppose he really isn’t very nice, although it’s perhaps not for me to criticize Lord Ravenshead’s son. Really, though, if I have to pick the most unpleasant character in the book, I’d choose the owner of Matfen Hall who wants me to marry his cousin and go to work for him. The way he treats people he sees as beneath him… Well, it’s disgraceful and he simply doesn’t see that he’s doing anything wrong.
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