Penelope rests on her side, cheek cradled by a pillow, her hands cupped beneath her chin; the very image of a sleeping child. The statue is heartbreaking. We're told people mourned their dead children less in past centuries, because mortality rates were so high; but this is clearly false comfort. I carried the image of Penelope in my mind as I toured Derbyshire, and the death of children wound its way into the plot of The Stillroom Maid.
A wall placque in The Rutland Arms in Bakewell declares that Jane Austen stayed there during the summer of 1811, but that is unlikely--the family record has her elsewhere. She might, however, have visited in 1806, while staying with her cousin Edward Cooper in neighboring Staffordshire. During Jane's six-week visit to the parsonage at Hamstall Ridware, the numerous Cooper progeny contracted a virulent strain of whooping cough, and it seems plausible that Cousin Edward might suggest a side-trip for his guests to the beauties of Matlock and Dove Dale, while his children hacked away at home under the harassed attentions of his long-suffering wife. The absurdities of Edward Cooper are one of the delights, for me, of this book.
Thus, the setting of The Stillroom Maid.
Murder, however? And maids?
In the Austen household, Cassandra served as stillroom maid. The stillroom was where produce was preserved, fruit wines were made, and simple medicines were distilled. Hence the term, "still room." A stillroom book would have been a household's compilation of both recipes and remedies.
I've researched and reconstructed a number of stillroom receipts for my character, Tess Arnold. But I feel compelled to add, in the interest of my readers' health: Don't try these at home....