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Orphan’s odyssey in city under shadow of the plague

Set in 17th-century London, Anne Willingale’s new novel has a heroine whose spirit reflects the author’s, says Fiona Green

12 April, 2018 — By Fiona Green

LONDON, 1665. For 12-year-old orphan Letty Denton, life has never been anything but a struggle. Brought up in an orphanage, she knows nothing of her family. Her only links are a doll and a letter written by her mother before her death.

The one bright spot in the orphanage’s harsh regime is her love for Alfie Melts – yet even that is taken away, when the administrator sells Letty into slavery.

Worse is still to come, as the tale unfolds and Letty’s family history is revealed.

Nell Gwynn, Letty’s 15-year-old contemporary was on the stage at the time Anne Willingale’s novel London 1665: The Key to the Street is set, and the first victim of the plague had also just died.

Anne’s poignant writing depicts the struggle for survival where the odds are stacked against the underprivileged.

The heroine’s indomitable spirit is mirrored in Anne’s life.

“I was born in London during the war, as the Germans dropped their bombs,” says Anne.

“It was Christmas Eve and I weighed four pounds, which was more than the chicken that my gran had managed to get for Christmas dinner the next day. Londoners were hungry.

“My gran was one of 14 children and the background of poverty in my novel comes inpart from her stories about how my great grandmother managed on so little.

“My schooling was not great: so many teachers were killed in the war or were suffering shell shock and couldn’t cope. Although I missed out on a good education I had a great imagination and life has taught me a lot.”

Anne later worked for a council in the Fens where part of the job was booking overnight accommodation for the homeless and their dogs.

“We are the products of the very strongest of our ancestors,” she says. “We have learnt how to survive.

“I love old London street names like Pudding Lane, Bread Street and Cardinal Cap Alley, which evoke a strong sense of the past.”

Researching the book, Anne came across stories such as the Winchester Geese of Southwark: prostitute women of the “stew houses” (brothels) and their babies were buried in unconsecrated ground by the church who had profiteered from the women’s work for more than 700 years, yet who failed to give them the dignity they deserved in death.

“I started writing in the late 1970s for my children, buying an old typewriter, and in the 1990s took a creative writing course. I have always admired how people who have little manage, and I express this emotional journey through my characters.

“Now I run a writing course at my local library – it gives me so much pleasure to see people live out their writing dreams.”

London 1665: The Key to the Street. By Anne Willingale, Matador Press, £8.99

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