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The love child in life and fantasy

What if you believe all your life that your father is the vicar of the parish and discover when he dies that you are actually a love child? Your mother is a farmer's daughter fallen from grace and your father is a peer of the realm.

This is the appalling situation in which my heroine Lucy finds herself in A Lady in Name. I wrote the story after watching a distressing programme about young Irish Catholic girls in the fifties, sent in disgrace to a nunnery and forced to give up their babies for adoption. If it was that bad then, how much worse was it for a woman in the Georgian or Regency era?

I well remember in my youth the stigma that still haunted illegitimacy, when shotgun marriages were a regular occurrence, whether or not the couple was ready. Things are very different now, thank goodness, but back then you were a "good" girl or a "nice" girl and the latter put you severely at risk of getting into trouble. No pill then. Just the unreliable condom.

What of the unwanted children? What happened to them? They grew up in an orphanage - which were not pleasant places at any time until very recent history. Or they were adopted, which was a lottery in itself. Adoption rules were so hedged by well-meaning authorities that many kids were lucky to find a good home, or even one at all.

Go back a couple of hundred years and we find the classic Oliver Twist scenario. Put to the workhouse at an early age, forced into apprenticeship and a life of poverty and possibly cruelty too. Escape and you joined the criminal fraternity or starved to death. We have Charles Dickens to thank for shedding light on the horrors of the 19th century and bringing them painfully to life.

In my story, the baby Lucy finds a refuge with the vicar who took in the dying fallen woman. When we meet her, she's labouring under a double blow. She's lost her father and her identity in one go. But instead of being crushed - Lucy is a romantic heroine after all! - she takes her courage in her hands and confronts the author of her misfortune: her real father.

Except that he's dead and her cousin Stefan is the new earl. As you may imagine, this is somewhat disconcerting. How Lucy reacts and what Stefan does about it I must leave within the pages of the novel.

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