Author draws on her grandmother's 'downstairs' diary for plot of novel
As a child, Jane Nancarrow was always made to feel like a proper lady whenever she went to her grandmother's house for Sunday tea.
On a snow-white, ironed tablecloth was laid a cut-glass milk jug and sugar bowl, while polished cutlery, china cups, saucers and plates were all arranged neatly. Daintily-cut sandwiches were followed by delicate cakes and fancies.
Everything was just-so. Because that's how Granny Northey liked it and that's how she had been taught to do it. Proper.
Jane herself was born in her grandparents' Georgian terraced house in Duke Street, St Stephen's, on the outskirts of Launceston. And the stories she heard her grandmother tell of life in the "big house" at Endsleigh, near Tavistock, made a lasting impression.
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Now living just a few doors away from her birthplace in St Stephen's, Jane has recently fulfilled a long-held ambition to share her grandmother's experiences with her readers.
This week sees the launch of the English teacher's second novel, with a plot that draws heavily on the Upstairs Downstairs world of her grandparents. Set in the enchanting country house on the Devon bank of the Tamar, the story draws on her grandparents' time there in the early years of the 20th century and how their lives intertwined with the nobility they served.
Echoes At Endsleigh is a time-shifting novel spanning the present day experiences of a fictional hotel worker called Janna, extracts from her grandmother's own diary made when she was a maid at Endsleigh, and the sexual indiscretions of its aristocratic former owners.
With slight echoes of Daphne du Maurier's The House On The Strand, Jane admits to enjoying the exploration of a time-shifting narrative. Her first novel, Stones And Shadows, was set in the present but concerned the infamous murder of Charlotte Dymond beneath Roughtor in 1844. And her short stories, The Perfect Cornish Christmas, Tea At Aunt Thirza's and Under The Arch, all published by Scryfa, also deal with period themes.
"My grandparents, Bessie Sandercock and Jack Northey, actually met while they were working at Endsleigh," said Jane, "He was a gardener – one of 30 – and she was a maid.
"I grew up hearing stories and little snippets of tales about their time there. Bessie was a lovely lady and those years of diligent attention to detail clearly rubbed off on her because she always liked things to be done properly in her own house. For Sunday afternoon tea in particular everything had to look nice."
Jane first became acquainted with the estate that straddles the Tamar some years ago and before it was bought by the Polizzi family. At that time it was run by a consortium of gentlemen anglers.
"The first time I saw it I completely fell in love with the place, because it's so idyllic," she said. "It was still a bit run down in a lovely sort of shabby-chic way. There was a broken-down greenhouse and I got quite nostalgic and thought about my grandad growing vegetables and potting up seedlings there. He was an amazing vegetable gardener all his life.
"Inside the house I imagined my grandmother polishing furniture and cleaning out the ashes from the grate in the morning and setting a fresh fire for the evening. The whole story of their lives fascinated me and I thought then that it would make a great setting for a novel."
Reading through her grandmother's diaries, which were given to her by her uncle, Jane decided the touch of authenticity would enhance the fictional elements of her novel.
Bessie's first entry read: "Came to Endsleigh to live April 17 1906..."
However, the journey into print didn't go quite as smoothly as Jane had hoped.
"One of the first extracts I read was about the loss of the Titanic," she said.
"I thought to myself 'what a gift' and immediately decided that was the moment at which I would open my novel. So you can imagine my disappointment when I saw the first episode of Downton Abbey and realised Julian Fellowes had used the exact same idea. So I had to forget all about that!"
With interest in Downton Abbey continuing and visits to National Trust properties rising, Jane hopes people already fascinated by the "golden age" of large country houses will be interested in her own foray into the lives and loves of a unique Westcountry property's gentry and those who served them.
Echoes At Endsleigh will be launched at Endsleigh House on Friday October 18 from 11am to 1.30pm, when the author will be signing copies.