When writing my previous novel, The Silk Weaver, I became intrigued by the role of seamstresses in Georgian society. Most were poorly-paid workers but a very few, like my protagonist Miss Charlotte, were fortunate enough to run their own businesses, allowing them financial independence and an ability to move between the layers of society in a way not available to others according to the strict mores of the time.
I love writing strong women characters, and just as soon as Miss Charlotte appeared as a minor character in my earlier book I realised that her backstory was begging to be told. She is a happily unmarried, independent businesswoman in the days when this was most unusual, and I couldn’t get her out of my head.
But something is missing from Miss Charlotte’s life and the discovery of an unusual piece of silk prompts a heart-breaking search. This strand of the novel was inspired by the experiences of two close friends who spent their adult lives looking for their birth parents. Their longing to find someone to whom they truly ‘belonged’, and the sadness they experienced when their search proved fruitless brought home to me how important it is to our own sense of identity to know where we come from.
I loved returning to the setting of 18th century London. It was a fascinating era, a time of much societal change: trade barriers were relaxed, the industrial revolution was about to begin, capitalism was on the rise as a newly wealthy middle class became consumers, and great thinkers and explorers of the Enlightenment were opening up their knowledge of the world. And of course, it was the time when the first Foundling Hospital was established in London.
As in previous novels, The Dressmaker of Draper’s Lane includes appearances from real life historical characters such as Jane Hogarth (wife of the artist William), the King’s mistress Henrietta Howard and the actor David Garrick. Jane Hogarth was an obvious choice given their long association with the Foundling Hospital and because William’s sister was a dressmaker, much like Miss Charlotte. Visiting their house in Chiswick led me to understand so much more about the artistic life of the period. Without Jane Hogarth, Miss Charlotte wouldn’t have met David Garrick, would never have gone to Henrietta Howard’s house and I would never have had the fun of writing scenes like their visit to Marble Hill.
Researching and writing my own family’s silk weaving history has brought me a greater sense of connection to my ancestors and an appreciation of the remarkable fabrics they have created over three hundred years. As it approaches its 300th anniversary in 2020, Stephen Walters & Sons is certainly the oldest silk company and probably one of very few continuously family-owned companies of any kind in Britain, and I am very proud to be connected with that heritage.