There was a huge irony in the fact that in late Victorian society, after half a century in which Queen Victoria had ruled supreme – and, for many years, alone – as the exalted head of the world’s largest empire, the lot of her lesser sisters down the social ladder was little better than it had ever been. The Married Women’s Property Acts had at least prevented a woman’s property becoming that of her husband upon marriage, but this was the result of dedicated and sustained campaigning by women who refused to take ‘no’ for an answer. Queen Victoria had not used her power and privilege in order to improve the role of women in the society that she dominated; she had simply accentuated the gulf between herself and the rest of English womanhood.
To make matters worse, when, by 1895, women were well aware of their second-class status, and were beginning to protest, they were restrained, not just by law, but also by tradition. Tradition had it that women were the inferior sex – physically, economically, professionally and sexually. The Suffragettes soon learned that their logical and reasoned arguments for the right to vote could be dismissed on the ground that they possessed neither the education nor the intelligence to justify their having a say in how the nation was governed. Women were still banned from professions such as the law and medicine, and all that they could look forward to, following the best education that they had been grudgingly allowed, was a position as a schoolteacher or a governess.
They also remained physically vulnerable, particularly if they chose to lead their lives without a male ‘protector’. So however academically and socially qualified they might be, men could always intimidate them into submission, and nowhere was this more obvious than in the matter of sexual harassment. Even contemporary women shudder at the prospect that while they are sleeping, or out of the house, someone – almost certainly a man – might invade the sanctity of their most intimate collection; their underwear drawer. Even the threat of it can engender fear, while the prospect of a return visit will be terrifying.
It was this awareness of the vulnerability and demeaned status of women in late Victorian England that was foremost in my mind when writing The Night Caller. When female emancipist Helen Trenchard tries to establish a women’s trade union, her opponents disdain to engage in logical and reasoned argument, and instead set out to deter her members and potential members by employing cheap sexual harassment techniques. Fortunately her employee Esther Jacobs, working temporarily while she prepares for her forthcoming wedding to her police constable fiancé Jack Enright, is able to call in those who can begin to investigate who is behind it all. But before they can complete those enquiries, the opponents of Helen’s trade union raise the stakes, and place murder on the agenda.
The Night Caller is due for release in May 2018. But don’t read it if you occasionally experience a nervous shudder when you hear that creaking floorboard outside your laundry door.