Illegitimate children and family scandals: Judith Cutler on the real-life inspiration behind her new novel

Judith Cutler reveals the secret family history that inspired The Wages of Sin the first in a brand-new Victorian mystery series featuring an engaging detective duo, steward Matthew Rowsley and housekeeper Mrs Faulkner.

I have to confess I always squirm when lovely people tell me I should put their fascinating family’s story into a book. It’s hard to tell them that for me writing novels doesn’t quite work like that. In fact, though I’ve tried to put some of my own family’s history into a novel, it’s never come alive on the page – and if I found it unreadable, I could scarcely expect anyone else to be interested.

The period I was interested in was the 1850s or 60s, when my paternal great-grandmother was in her early teens. At that time she was in service in a great house, her family working on the estate and living in a tied cottage. Family legend says this was in Shropshire. The story goes that she was seduced by one of her employers’ sons. So far so normal, in the ethos of the times, at least. But whereas many aristocrats would have reacted by sending the errant son to the colonies and the fallen woman to have her baby in the furthest corner of their most distant estate, it seems that this noble family decided on another course of action.

What happened to the young man, history – Cutler history – does not record. But we do believe that her family complained to his. This was brave or unwise – possibly both. As it was, they were told to shut up and to get shut of their daughter or the whole family would become unemployed and thus homeless. Remember that these were the days when men could be sacked for speaking before they were spoken to, women for not curtsying deeply enough. And these class inequalities were accepted; this was the era when the poem ‘All Things Bright and Beautiful’ was written, with its disconcerting and not necessarily ironic verse:

The rich man in his castle,
The poor man at his gate,
God made them, high or lowly,
And ordered their estate.

All things bright and beautiful,
All creatures great and small,
All things wise and wonderful,
The Lord God made them all.

Cecil Frances Alexander

(It was soon set to a jaunty tune and became a favourite Anglican hymn. These days we omit that verse when we sing it.)

Much as I wanted to, I could not write this story as it stood: it became embarrassingly romantic or something perilously close to polemic. The only thing I could do was take my great-grandmother and my grandmother out of the centre of the story and make them bit players, as they would have been at the time. At least in The Wages of Sin someone cares about them. Someone wants justice for them. Matthew and Harriet may not walk with the pregnant girl from somewhere near Shrewsbury to Wolverhampton and thence to Bilston, but they understand what it meant to do it. They agonise about the child’s future, and make a decision, though not necessarily the right one. They do their best.

Granny Cutler was apparently appalled when she discovered she was illegitimate, and lived with the perceived shame all her long and hard life in Smethwick, cleaning floors at Boots the Chemists and taking in washing to support her family. Hard as nails, she was. Tough as old boots. She had to be. But maybe that’s another story . . .

The Wages of Sin is published in the UK on the 31st of October 2019, and in the US on 4th February 2020. Click the links to buy on Amazon, or find out more on the Severn House website here:

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