Though around here we know Beryl Kingston to be the queen of historical fiction (with over one million copies of her books sold, how could she not be?), we also know that behind the best stories, there’s always a bit of truth.
Beryl has shared her top tips for researching historical fiction with us before, but one of our favourite inspirations she’s drawn from is the true story of the WHSmith empire.
In today’s very special guest post, Beryl tells us how her Easter Empire Trilogy came to be and the fascinating truth behind it.
The trilogy was kicked off by my agent, who at that time was the great Darley Anderson. He phoned me one afternoon to ask if I knew that Smith’s had been founded by a woman. The company had just published a new book telling the history of it. Would I like to read it?
I would and did and was hooked.
Apparently the original W. H. Smith infuriated his wealthy family by falling in love with a servant and marrying her instead of just living with her. Shock horror! Naturally they cut him off without a penny because the marriage was ‘beneath him’. Unfortunately the poor man died when he was relatively young, leaving his wife and their three young children without any means of support.
But Anne Smith was a resourceful woman. She took to the streets, not to sell her body, which is what destitute young women usually did, but to sell the newly published daily paper which was called The Times and cost tuppence. She charged an extra farthing on every copy she sold and, as the WHSmith history put it, ‘out of those farthings, the Smith Empire was built.’
It was an irresistible story, though, very sadly, the real story didn’t last long, because Anne’s hard work meant that she too died young. So at that point I decided to turn the original tale in a different direction and keep her alive.
She was too good a character to kill. I changed the names of my central characters from W. H. and Anne Smith to W. H. Easter and his wife Nan and set fire to the blue touch paper. Three years later, I had a trilogy.
There were several knock-on effects to extending my heroine’s life. One was that it gave her and her children – and us – time to explore their world. The story begins in 1786 so naturally I sent her and her husband to Paris in time to see the French king have his head chopped off.
In the second book, I contrived to have my heroine, Harriet, who is Nan’s daughter-in-law, go to Manchester at the time of the Peterloo massacre. It is a powerful turning point in her life, besides being a very grizzly business.
And in the third book on a rather more gentle note, I rounded the saga off by sending Nan to Windsor Castle to receive a medal from Queen Victoria.
We hope you enjoyed hearing from Beryl herself about the Easter Empire trilogy! You can explore the series more HERE.