Gravesend author publishes new novel
PUBLISHED: 13:01 13 March 2018
Angela Jean Young, a Gravesend-born author, has published a new historical novel, centred around the sinking of the Thames paddle steamer SS Princess Alice, a tragedy which this month will see its 140th anniversary.
The sinking claimed the lives of 650 Londoners, and Field of Dust portrays the event against a backdrop of Northfleet’s once powerful Victorian cement industry - just one way in which the novel explores tragedy with a local relevance.
Steeped in mystery, romance and exploiation, the novel is rich in history, delving into Jack the Ripper, Buffallo Bill’s Wild West Show and, significant on a contemporary level, the fight for womens’ rights.
Angela explores the terrible conditions of the poor at the time, and the danger that came with being a woman.
The novel charts a working class girl’s search for the truth about her abandonment and the mystery surrounding her drunken mother and the wreckage of her family, and with much relevance placed on this year’s centenary of the extension of voting rights to (some) women, Field of Dust has created quite a stir.
Yet life for Florence - the heroine of this story - doesn’t leave you feeling despondent.
A fighter for the things she believes in, her life takes an unexpected turn when she hears the impassioned speech of a young union representative.
Angela grew up in Gravesend, and her family have lived on the River Thames for generations - which inspired her writing.
She said: “My parents were landlord and landlady of the Wheatsheaf in New Road.
“Indeed my first book Hollow Victory, published in 2014, was all about growing up in that environment in the swinging sixties.”
She also worked as a researcher in London’s dynamic advertising scene before concentrating on writing and historical research.
Opening with the dramatic sinking in 1878, Young weaves fact and fiction together in the book, in a way that both fascinates and horrifies.
For days the bloated bodies of men, women and children were hauled out of the stinking river, watched by the children of The Creek, a dust-blown harbour community supporting the labourers and their families who toiled in the cement factories.
The tragedy is seared into the memories of those who witnessed it.
One of those children, Florence Grant, is the storyteller in Angela’s second novel.
Angela said: “Whilst looking into my mother’s family history I discovered Florence - potentially my great aunt.
“Realising that she didn’t seem to ‘fit’ within the list of my Great Grandfather’s 14 children I began to weave my own version of her life, creating fictional characters along the way, to interact with real people dealing with real events of the time.”
“‘Flossie’ grew up amid the dust and grime of Northfleet’s churning cement factories.
“Crammed together in a tiny cottage, the family were forced to take in lodgers to supplement meagre earnings.
“Today, such living conditions would be unthinkable.
“After being abandoned, ‘Flossie’ is determined never to be like her mother, relying on drink and feckless men.
“Aged sixteen she set out to learn the truth about her parentage. She’s my idea of a heroine; a woman who fights for what she believes in and succeeds against all odds.”
Speaking about her inspiration for the novel, she added: “Living so close to the river where many members of my family worked either for the PLA or in the factories on its edges has led me to research the area which has in turn inspired my writing.
“It took four years to research, write and publish Field of Dust.
“It has been a real labour of love and I feel a great connection to Florence, who learns a great deal from her experiences and becomes a determined woman.
“Not easy in Victorian England!”
Field of Dust is available locally at Made In Kent, in Gravesend High Street.
Angela will also be giving a talk at Coldharbour Library, Coldharbour Road, Northfleet on Wednesday, April 4 at 6:30pm.