1841, the year in which Letty’s story happens, was also the year Australia’s first children’s book was published. A Mother’s Offering to Her Children wouldn’t make it into print now – it’s long on lessons from ‘Mrs Saville, engaged at her needle’, and short on plot.
When I started writing Meet Letty, I wanted a main character who would appeal to today’s girls (unlike Mrs Saville)! I felt the core of the story should be what I think of as ‘heart issues’, themes that cross centuries, such as friendship, relationships, and acceptance.
I also wanted Letty to be true to her times. The 1840s were Charles Dickens’ era – the time of chimney sweeps and scullery maids, big families and typhoid epidemics, frills, ruffles and poor seamstresses. Children were often exposed to the kind of suffering that we now think of as Third World. So that’s Letty’s world too. She’s not uneducated or destitute, but she comes precariously close.
Letty has no expectations of anything more than a home, with family, friends and a few pretty things. Like all Victorian children, she has been taught to be obedient and good. She is insecure, fearful and shy. As the series opens, she tries to please her father by doing what she’s been told, and is swept up by circumstances on a ship to Australia. She doesn’t know her own worth – she doesn’t think she’s as beautiful or capable as her teenage sister Lavinia, who swishes impatiently across the pages in her full skirts.
But Letty is resilient, and the solid, honourable sailor Abner is there to encourage her. Eventually her kindness and bravery come to the fore. The finale of her story in Letty’s Christmas was a joy to write, although it’s hard to let the curtain fall on all the characters Letty and I had come to love.
I expect readers will form impressions of Australian history from these books, so I’ve tried to make Letty’s fictional challenges as historically realistic as possible (minus the traumas of violence and sexual exploitation). Emigrants did leave their families forever; homeless girls were forced to camp out in Sydney’s caves; many children worked for a living; rural women struggled with isolation and the elements; all as Letty does. I hope Letty’s story will give kids today a sense of the drama and struggle of our nation’s past. As young Australians, it’s their heritage.
When Meet Letty was launched earlier this year, in the midst of floods and cyclones, I thought maybe Letty’s story has another purpose as well. Perhaps today’s Australian girls will see that when really hard things do happen, there is still hope.