As big fans of Katherine Woodfine's The Mystery of the Clockwork Sparrow, and just-published sequel The Mystery of the Jewelled Moth, we are very excited to be on the blog tour for the new book today!
Edwardian London: From West to East
‘She had almost reached the river now. The air here had its own peculiar tang: a part-sour, part-spicy odour of smoke and turpentine, flavoured with rum from the West India Docks, and always the distinctive smell of the water. Everything started with the river… Mei could see the dark lines of its myriad cranes and masts sketched against the sky, as she picked her way carefully down towards it.’
- The Mystery of the Jewelled Moth
Whilst Miss Veronica Whiteley and her fellow debutantes experience the social whirl of the Season in the grandeur of West London, The Mystery of the Jewelled Moth also introduces us to a very different side of Edwardian London.
If The Mystery of the Clockwork Sparrow focused in closely on Sinclair’s department store itself, The Mystery of the Jewelled Moth represents a kind of ‘zoom out’, allowing us to see more of the wealthy Sinclair’s customers like Veronica, but also to see something of London’s flip side - the docks of the East End, where the goods that were sold at Sinclair’s department store might have first arrived in the city.
In the Edwardian period, London’s East End was one of the poorest parts of the city. Whilst just a few miles away, London’s richest grew richer thanks to trade with the Empire, here life was tough. Living conditions were extremely poor: some families lived ten to a room, with no access to clean water. Wages were low, crime was rife and disease flourished: nearly 20% of children died before their first birthday.
In spite of all this, the East End docks were of huge importance to London, as the place where goods from all over the world arrived in Britain. Whilst today our docks are largely automated, in the Edwardian era, they employed many thousands of people. Communities of sailors sprung up around the docks - itinerant populations who came and went on the big ships that sailed out of the London docks all over the world. As such, the East End fast became one of London’s most diverse and multi-cultural quarters.
There are lots of stories told about the East End of London at around this time in history - from the dark tales of the Jack the Ripper murders, to the writings of authors like Charles Dickens and Henry Mayhew, who wanted to draw people’s attention to the abject poverty of the East End, and the inequalities of society. A little later, and closer to the time that The Mystery of the Jewelled Moth is set, the author Jack London lived the life of an East End Londoner for a few months, staying in workhouses or sleeping on the streets. He wrote a book The People of the Abyss about his experiences, which also aimed to expose the plight of the poor.
Today, it’s difficult to read accounts like these without being struck by the awful contrast between the lavish lives of the Edwardian ‘super-rich’ - with their grand balls, elaborate fashions and extraordinarily extravagant meals - and the daily struggles of the Edwardian poor. In The Mystery of the Jewelled Moth, I wanted to explore this contrast, and to write about the Edwardian East End as well as the West. However, I also wanted to tell a slightly different story from the dark tales we might have previously encountered about this area.
I chose to focus particularly on Chinatown, which in this period was situated in Limehouse, close to the London docks - and in particular, on a young East End girl, Mei Lim and her family. The Lims run a small grocer’s shop which strikes quite a contrast with the elegant Sinclair’s department store. (You can read more about why I wanted to write about Edwardian Chinatown on the Guardian website here.)
Through the adventure that follows, we have the chance to explore life in two different worlds - London’s glamorous West End, and the more dangerous and down-at-heel East. Yet I hope the story also points to some of the ways that the carefully-maintained social barriers of the Edwardian era were just beginning to unravel. Although they may live in two different worlds, Mei and her family find themselves unexpectedly entangled with Veronica and her debutante friends - and soon learn to understand and help each other. Perhaps in the East End and West End of London are not really so very different from each other after all?
Katherine is on Twitter as @followtheyellow, and you can read her website and blog.