Nicola here. Today I am musing about life in the English village. So many of the historical romances I’ve read are set it cities such as London or Bath, or smaller towns like Brighton or Cheltenham. This makes sense. These places were the epicentres of activity in the Regency era, the venue for balls and other social events, a place where people might go for their health, for sea bathing or to take the spa waters. They were a good hunting ground for ladies looking to secure a titled husband, or for men seeking an heiress. It feels as though all the excitement is focussed on the towns and cities where there are lots of new people to meet and lots of things going on. After all, as Jane Austen wrote in Northanger Abbey: “If adventures will not befall a young lady in her own village, she must seek them abroad.”
In some ways, things haven’t changed much in two hundred years. When I was younger I lived in a number of different English cities: Leeds, London, Leicester. They were vibrant places with a mix of cultures and events that was very stimulating. Even today a trip to London, or Edinburgh, or Oxford is something of a treat. The combination of history and shopping is irresistible and much more exciting that what is on offer at home. So where does that leave the English village?
By the time of the Regency period, the village was somewhere the well-heeled would have a country estate. They would spend the Season in Town and go to their country house in the summer. Whilst the Big House might be a reasonable distance from the workers’ cottages - and in some cases a landowner would even move a village to improve their view - the two things, house and village, were inter-dependent. The local village near where I live is a good example. There is a manor house in the centre of the village and a hundred yards away, the church. The other big house in the village, the vicarage, also belonged to the lord of the manor, who gave it to the vicar as part of the living.
Then there was the Home Farm. It was located near the manor and provided produce for the house and for the village. Around the outskirts of the village, various other farms were dotted about too, and servicing the manor, various industries built up. In the 19th century around here there were three wheelwrights, three millers, four carpenters and several blacksmiths and farriers. The shops in the village included two grocers, a baker and several more specialised trades including haberdasher and a shoemaker.
The population of the village also included a number of people who worked in service at Ashdown House, including various maids and footmen who would live out and walk into work each day. More exotically, according to the estate papers, there was also the falconer and the person who looked after Lord Craven’s dogs. Then, of course there was Thomas Neate, innkeeper and brewer. The 18th century was a good time for our local inn because roads were being improved, leading to more travellers and more business. Coaches became more comfortable and inns needed to provide stabling for horses and good quality accommodation and food for visitors. Coaches, wagons, carts and gigs would travel along the Portway, the ancient Roman road that runs through the village, and over the Berkshire Downs, taking produce to and from markets and people journeying between towns. The Rose and Crown, our local pub, was also important to the Craven family who recognised the need for a local inn to provide for their estate workers. If you look at the left hand side of the building in hte photograph you can see the arched window that was once the entrance to the stable yard.
As an alternative to a city or town, the village has obvious benefits as a setting for a story. It has a community that reflects the various different professions and levels of society. There is the potential for cross-class attraction to the blacksmith or the innkeeper, male or female.There are the aristocrats or the rich gentry at the manor (Oh, the excitement when Mr Bingley comes to Netherfield in Pride and Prejudice!) and their visitors (Mr Darcy!) There are other houses belonging to the lesser gentry, the widows (who might not be old) and the professional classes. Poldark has plenty of cross-class attraction, Ross and Demelza, George the self-made man, and Elizabeth and my favourite romance in that series, Dr Enys and Caroline Penvenan. The doctor is a gentleman by birth but he has no money and isn't seen as good enough for an heiress. Plus he works for a living amongst the poor. If he were a rich doctor in Bath or London, matters might have been different.
I love writing about villages and both my Brides of Fortune and Midwinter series are set in village society. As today, there is scope for various local societies and activities. The ladies of the Midwinter villages belonged to a reading group and created a charity calendar featuring the local Regency gentlemen. Fortune’s Folly was a spa village with a mix of old titles, new wealth and lots of intrigue. It may not be Bath or London but it has a complex social hierarchy all of its own.
It's not only romantic novels that thrive on a village or small town setting. Is it any wonder that so many crime novels are set in English villages? Sherlock Holmes commented: “The lowest and vilest alleys in London do not present a more dreadful record of sin than does the smiling and beautiful countryside." Author Anthony Horowitz agrees: “English villages are places of hatred, mistrust and bitterness. I love the fact that in a village everybody is hiding something and people are far more curious about what is going on behind their net curtains." This seems a bit extreme, but perhaps it is the fact that villages are such a mix of different personalities living in close proximity that is the key to their attraction for writers in any genre. I’ve lived in villages for almost thirty years (one was called Midsomer Norton!) and I’ve certainly had some mind-boggling experiences and whilst I would deny that we’re all hiding something in our village, and we certainly don’t have a crime wave to rival that of Midsomer Murders, there’s no doubt that the mix of people and the fact we are all living more in each other’s pockets than we might in a city makes for some interesting times. The more positive side of village life is that it is friendly and there is a sense of community and support. Perhaps it is also that that draws those of us who like uplifting stories and happy endings to stories set in a village.
Do you enjoy stories set in villages or small towns, either historical or contemporary, romance or crime, and if so, why are they appealing? Do you have a favourite cast of characters or plot? Or perhaps you don't like them, finding the village scene too claustrophobic? I’m giving away a copy of Confessions of a Duchess, my first Brides of Fortune book, to one commenter between now and midnight Thursday.