Consider Frances Miller Ashford, One of My Original Characters
Who is Frances Miller Ashford?
When Ceilidh is hired to work for the Edwards, the first thing readers should notice is: it’s a really big house. There are obviously going to be other people working there. Lots and lots of them! If you have ever watched Downton Abbey or Upstairs, Downstairs, then you know exactly what I mean.
But at the same time, I knew that not everyone would know the nuances of Victorian era living. Plus, I needed to have a good way to get across the look and feel of the Edwards House. There would have to be a character who would, at least in part, behave as a kind of expository mouthpiece.
Where Did Frances Miller Ashford Come From?
I wanted very much to have an immigrant much like Ceilidh but better settled in the story. Also, I needed for Ceilidh to have someone she could talk to. Frances fills the bill rather nicely in both areas. Further, I needed Ceilidh to have someone who had an English accent she could emulate. It didn’t seem realistic to have Ceilidh remember Captain Underwood perfectly for years. But Frances was a lot more plausible.
Originally, her last name was Marshall, but then I had too many scenes with a character named Barry Marsh. The names were starting to get confusing. And I could not change Marsh’s name, as he was named after someone I know.
Hence, Frances got a slight tweak. I also like the newer name better, because it flows much better with her (spoiler alert!) married name.
The Past is Prologue — Backstory for Frances Miller Ashford
An orphan who never knew her family, I never actually wrote her extremely early life. But Frances could have been the child of people who died—perhaps of any of the many diseases flying around Britain at the time.
Or she could have been the child of an unwed mother, left at a church or even the orphanage where she grew up. Her mother could have even been a prostitute. I don’t see her as a female Oliver Twist, the child who’s in the orphanage but should have been raised by their own wealthy family.
No. Frances was to be a real foundling, with a hard beginning. For an almost traditional look at someone who raised themselves up from their bootstraps, she is the one to look to.
Was Frances Originally Jewish?
The more I read about the Manchester Jewish Board of Guardians, the more I wonder if I could make her a Jewish child. Conversion of orphans in orphanages appears to have been pretty common at the time. The Board of Guardians is developed in 1859, though, and I put her birth at 1858. But this can work for the story line.
So, prior to the creation of an appropriate orphanage to place a Jewish child in, the possibility is high that such a foundling would be put in a non-Jewish orphanage. For a very young baby, which Frances would be, there really wouldn’t be anyone to object to someone just quietly baptizing her.
Coming to America
In keeping with what really happened to some people, I wanted Frances to have kind of gotten to Boston in a roundabout way. Ceilidh means to go to Boston. But Frances? Not necessarily.
As she got older, the orphanage was clearly going to toss someone like her out on her ear. The orphanage wouldn’t necessarily care if she ended up working, married, turning tricks, or dead. They would simply want her bed for some other, younger child.
And so I decided there would be someone who would come and promise the older girls husbands if they left the country. This would be an irresistible offer for not only someone like Frances, but also for girls like her and the orphanage itself.
But when they arrive in the United States, there are no waiting husbands. The promise was a false one. And so, rather, Frances and her cohorts become Lowell Girls, working for a mill.
After she bides her time, eventually, she gets a day off and ventures into the big city of Boston. Frances has main advantages: a pleasant voice and demeanor, a high class-sounding accent to someone like Mrs. Edwards, and a willingness to work hard. As a result, Frances gets a job in the scullery. She doesn’t keep in touch with the other girls, and has no idea what happened to them.
Her rise is slow, deliberate, and patient. I want it to feel believable. Frances knows the world does not owe her a living.
Frances Miller Ashford, a Description
So, Frances has dark eyes and dark brown curls. I always hear her as having a somewhat breathy voice. Her British accent is via Manchester. It is the kind of accent Americans generally think of when we think of British accents. She is not cockney and is not some latter-day Eliza Doolittle.
I recently decided on actress Margaret Qualley to be the face of Frances Miller. It was a bonus that Qualley was in a show called Maid!
The idea behind Frances is that she almost blends into the background in the beginning. But, of course, she ends up being a lot bigger and more important than that. Ceilidh is a big part of Frances coming into her own as, of course, Gregory Ashford is, too.
Coming from Ballyvaughan, Ceilidh has never used indoor plumbing before. In this scene, Frances explains what to do:
Frances lifted the lid, and showed Ceilidh there was a lacquered wooden seat. “Now here’s all you do, see. You lift the lid like so and let it rest against the back here, see? And then you gather your skirts or your nightgown up and sit down, facing the back.”
“Right, yes, I see.”
“And you do your business, of course. Then you take a sheet of these papers and use it cleanse yourself.”
“What do you do with the paper afterwards?”
“You place it into the bowl, where you just did your business.”
“And then what do you do?”
“You see the lever, and the little frog pull?”
“Yes, ‘tis rather amusing.”
“You pull once and hold it for as long as it takes in your head, to say,” Frances giggled a little, “God Save the Queen.”
Frances has two main relationships.
Plumber’s Assistant Gregory Ashford
Her romantic one is with her husband, Gregory Ashford. They meet when the plumber is called in, to clear away a clog in the bathroom shared by all the women servants. Gregory is the assistant. While fixing the toilet, he and Ceilidh talk a little. He asks her, “Who is the vision?”
Ceilidh asks for clarification, and he says the vision has brown curls. Ceilidh makes sure to tell Gregory that Frances is Miss Frances Miller.
For Frances, Gregory is utterly unexpected. She and Ceilidh are what anyone of the time would have called old maids. While Frances has always wished and hoped for a family, she is a practical person at heart. Her dreams of love would not necessarily come true.
And so Gregory is a pleasant surprise. He is also kind and gentle and truly cares for her. Frances gets a middle class life, and that is perfect for her.
The only other relationship (really) for Frances is her close friendship with Ceilidh. When Ceilidh arrives, unsure of whether she’ll get work, Frances is the one to help Ceilidh along and assure she gets a job as a scullery maid. Frances wants a friend, someone she can talk to. No one else in the Edwards household can fill that need for her.
And so Frances kind of puts her thumb on the scale and rigs Ceilidh’s test to be hired. Without Frances and her help, Ceilidh would not have gotten such a good job. And certainly nowhere near as quickly.
The truest of friends, Ceilidh convinces Frances to give Gregory a chance, because plumbers will always have work, so she’ll never starve. Coming from grinding poverty, that’s an enormous plus, so far as Ceilidh is concerned.
The biggest bonus is when Gregory turns out not only to be all right, but to truly be an almost (this is the 1870s and 1880s we’re talking about) an equal partner.
Just like Ceilidh and other women of the time, Frances is a victim of what today we would refer to as sexual harassment. Donald Smith is nasty to everyone, and he leers at virtually every woman he sees. This comes to a stop when Gregory finally steps in and makes it clear that Frances is his girl. At least Donald backs off.
With the other servants, Frances is cordial but not overly friendly. There is nothing about the woman who Ceilidh ends up replacing. I never mention her by name, and neither does Frances. And so I feel we can conclude that the two women were not too terribly close.
Conflict and Turning Point
In the first book, The Real Hub of the Universe, the conflict and turning point for Frances are nearly the same as those for Ceilidh. Without getting too far into spoiler territory, the real issue is that both Ceilidh and Frances could have lost everything. When Judge Lowell helps out, Frances realizes she’s come from nothing, but has come to have powerful friends.
Her gratitude goes beyond measure.
By the time the series ends, she has achieved a great deal of the middle class dream. In particular, in comparison to someone like the wealthy Margery Cabot Edwards, Frances has true happiness.
Gregory’s Brighton, Massachusetts house ties in with, of all things, Mettle. It’s just down the street from the house where Craig and Mei-Lin find the solar panels—about 140 years later.
Also, as an expository character, she aligns somewhat with Ixalla from Untrustworthy. But only a little. Ixalla, after all, is well-educated. Frances, while she can ostensibly read and write, has what is likely what we would call dyslexic today.
Also, her name ties her directly to Josie James’s sixth-eldest sibling, Frances Farrah James Walsh. But Francie is a professional ballerina, and has divorce in her past. She shares custody of her daughter, Gina, with her ex-husband, Clayton. Francie Walsh lives on Titania, a Uranian moon. Her ex has custody of Gina and they live on another Uranian moon, Umbriel.
And so Frances and Francie really just share a name, but nothing else.
I don’t really have future places for her, simply because the series is done. But never say never, for I did write a few short one-offs with her, Ceilidh, Gregory, and Devon. She may very well turn up again. Here’s hoping!
There are also enough hints that there could very well be a sequel series if I ever get a true plot together…
Frances as an old woman could be truly compelling. With her birth in 1858, she could conceivably live into the 1930s. Without it being too much of a stretch, that is. Her earlier, harder life could even give her an advantage during the Great Depression. But she would still be about 71 when it starts, and that’s pretty old for that era. For a person with a difficult early life, even a survivor like Frances Miller Ashford might not live past her sixties, if that.
Frances Miller Ashford: Takeaways
Every main character needs a sidekick, a kind of bounce off person. Frances is that type of character. This survivor, against all odds, is still sweet and charming. This makes her one of the more optimistic characters I have ever written.Character Review — Frances Miller Ashford Click To Tweet