Margaret Morgan grew up in a rural area in Shropshire, England and turned her hand to teaching, both in the UK and overseas. But after a tragic medical diagnosis led to early retirement, Margaret’s husband suggested she write to avoid dwelling on missing her colleagues. Instead of starting slowly and perhaps gaining experience with short stories, Margaret leapt straight into researching a period of history she knew little about, but wanted to know more.
The result was Mrs. McKeiver’s Secrets, the first book in a planned trilogy set in a fictional area of limestone hills and a microcosm of England in the late 18th century. The themes involve all the problems facing rural villages—such as the horror of landlessness, the price of food and the threat of starvation as a once settled rural community is rocked to its core by the effects of the Hills' Enclosure Act 1795—all seen through the eyes of the midwife, Mrs. McKeiver.
Morgan stops by In Reference to Murder to take some "Author R&R" and talk about how her family history inspired the novel as well as her research into the real-life events that are at the heart of the book:
I was born in 1950, which I feel now was another age.
Our farm was two and a half miles from the village of Leintwardine, where I went to primary school. My elder sister, Kate, two years older than me was already there. Our younger sister Liz wasn’t born until 1957.
The farm was built in the 1750’s and had not changed since then, except for the addition of a black grate and oven in the kitchen. The bits to the spit remained, as obviously one would need it, which Mum did when feeding lots of shearers etc. Water came via a pump in the yard, or a well in the orchard; light from a candle; or a lamp, strictly after tea, of course.
The yard was a beautiful cobbled pattern, I remember, until my father concreted it during his ‘concrete period’ in 1957, as it was so slippery. Gone were the days of many cheap hands on farms, to do all the sweeping and upkeep needed.
We had electricity when I was about four and water when my father paid for it to be brought in 1962. The thrill of a bathroom I can still remember; as we’d had an Elsan in the attic, as well as a two seater ‘around the corner’ in the orchard, previously. I don’t expect many rural children in the Herefordshire area had much different in the 1950’s.
From primary school at eleven, I didn’t follow my sister to Ludlow High School, but went to a small prep school in Leominster. From there I went to a brand new secondary school in a nearby village, Wigmore. In 1966 I became Head Girl, which was a great step in the right direction for me. For A levels I attended Ludlow Grammar School, until 1968.
I decided to teach Physical Education, so trained at Weymouth College of Education, part of the University of Southampton. I taught PE in Bournemouth until 1978 and changed to EFL teaching to go overseas with my husband. We lived in various African countries and Malta. In 1985 we returned and lived in London for sixteen years, teaching in privateprep schools. By now I was teaching junior girls for the London Day Schools’ Entrance Examination at 10+. However, I was finding life increasingly difficult.
Looking back, it seems strange that no one put two and two together earlier than 1995. I had been attempting to find out what was wrong with me for nearly twenty years. Terrific head and lower back pain, projectile vomiting coupled with deteriorating ability to walk, meant nothing to a long list of doctors. Indeed, I was sneered at on my medical notes. ‘Very into alternative therapies ha ha’.
At last I saw a neurologist. 1995 meant Bart’s for three days, steroids and the immediate clearing of my head. I had Multiple Sclerosis diagnosed too. The lower back pain faded and my headache gradually diminished. I still have leg pain, with excruciating right big toe pain. It seems that I have spinal stenosis and MS.
I had to retire in 2002, as I did a graceful collapse outside my Doctor’s Surgery and had to call my husband to drive me less than half a mile home.
After bed rest, I could feel my feet again and began to take an interest in life. It took a time for everything to sink in and that left me very lost. I missed everyone at work terribly, so my husband suggested that I write, as I had started short stories for competitions. As a child my sister and I had written ‘newspapers’, which had a limited circulation: 2 parents. I had been teaching essay writing to junior girls, but I already knew it was the thing for me.
Instead of writing short stories, for experience, I leapt straight into researching a period of history I knew a little about, but wanted to know more. Herbal knowledge and midwifery in the eighteenth century seemed to naturally evolve out of my research. Mrs. McKeiver entered my head when I first thought of a character to hold everything together in the Hills; my fictional area.
I expect she is an amalgam of my mother and her two grandmothers. Coming from Yorkshire and Lincolnshire they were fearless, strong women. One was a land worker, living until her seventies; having a home and family. She was reputed to be able to make soup from ‘the dishcloth and an onion’. The other was perhaps better off, assisting the midwife at births in her rural area in Yorkshire. I know one of them would beat any official with her umbrella, if she thought someone was being harangued for being poor and needy. A great sin in pre war days.
What I did discover from my research, was the appalling effects of Land Enclosures on the rural poor. It equals mistreatment of a country’s own working people, anywhere in the World. They must have died in hundreds, as charity was very limited, even up to the early twentieth century. Punishments for poaching were increasingly horrific too; for taking an unwanted rabbit to feed hungry children.
At the moment I am editing and improving Book 3; thinking about Book 4 and writing Children’s books that are one page bedtime stories.I belong to a very small Writers’ Circle, sisters and sister in law, but we do an activity every fortnight and enter competitions. My sister in law has had many stories published in women’s magazines.In addition, Morton and Smith are publishing three of my teenage stories, in their termly School’s Catalogue.
In my children’s writing the main character usually has to cope with a parent’s illness, and/or death. I think that is so important, as in my experience many children today have to face someone in the family having treatment for cancer. The main character cannot cope at the beginning, but gradually realises others need support as much as them. They reach out and are rewarded.
The second Mrs. McKeiver book is Mrs. McKeiver’s Solutions, which is now published as an ebook by Troubador. Book three, Mrs. McKeiver’s Remedies, will see ‘chickens coming home to roost’. Just desserts come to the right people and the mystery baby is born.