Friday, February 18, 2011

19th Century Life Was Stranger Than Fiction

Let me tell you a story…



I’m often asked how I came up with the idea for Sam/Sarah in my latest Regency, The Bricklayer’s Helper. Really, it was very easy after discovering and becoming absolutely fascinated by the life of Catherine Wilson. In fact, I “stole” from many of the facts of Catherine’s life and here’s her real story.

Catherine Wilson was born into a well-respected middle-class family in Perth. When she was fourteen, her parents passed away, leaving her without family or any means of support. Despite her grief, Catherine kept her wits about her and embarked on a new life…as a boy! She donned her deceased brother’s clothing, adopted the name of John Thomson and went forth to seek employment.


Initially, she found work as a herder/grazier to some local cattle farmers. After several years, she accompanied the cattle to Hallow Fair in Edinburg and left the life of grazier to seek more profitable work as a stable boy to a Mr. Lawson. She did so well that she was offered a job as a groom and foot boy to J. Williams, Esq. This new job suited her very well and she stayed there for two years until she pissed off J. Williams and he fired her.


She then got a job in Leith and found rooms for herself in a boarding house run by Mrs. Gray. It wasn’t long before Mrs. Gray discovered that John Thomson was in fact a woman. Now Mrs. Gray had a daughter who was messing around with the butcher and soon found herself pregnant. Furious, Mrs. Gray decided to blackmail “John Thomson” by threatening to expose him as a her unless “he” married her daughter so that the child would not be born out of wedlock.


At that time, a woman masquerading as a man risked deportation if the masquerade was discovered, so the threat did have teeth. However, John/Catherine did not want to marry her landlord’s pregnant daughter so she fled to Edinburgh where she took a job as a bricklayer’s helper. But Mrs. Gray wasn’t about to let a good thing slip out of her hands, so she hounded John/Catherine and even wrote a letter to the bricklayer who fired John/Catherine for “his” depraved behavior in refusing to “do the right thing” and marry the pregnant girl.


Finally caving in, John/Catherine married the girl but soon found it beyond her capabilities to support her mother-in-law, wife, and a young baby. After two years, she gave up and confessed to the parish officers that she was, in fact, a woman.


Catherine finally escaped to Glasgow and took a job—as a woman—at one of the factories in that city.


The real story sounds even more bizarre, if anything, than mine, but it certainly highlights that absolutely anything is possible!


The Bricklayer's Helper
What would you do if you were a young girl, orphaned during the early years of the 19th century?

When Sarah finds herself orphaned after a suspicious fire burns down her home with her family trapped inside, all she can remember is the warning to “run and hide.” And hide she does. She cuts her hair and dons the garb of a young boy, hoping to survive on her own. In this disguise, she’s obtains a job as a bricklayer’s helper and remains safe for thirteen years.

When work takes her to London, a man from her past recognizes her and arranges a meeting, only to be murdered before they can speak. Desperate that she may be vulnerable, Sarah hires an inquiry agent from the Second Sons Inquiry Agency.

However, the inquiry agent, William Trenchard, is far too attractive for Sarah’s taste. In her experience, handsome men can rarely do more than fumble their way beneath a lady’s skirt, but she fears he may be her last chance. But William is determined to solve the mystery and ensure Sarah does not become the final victim.


Unfortunately, their decisions may prove to be downright fatal.

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