Jill Dawson tells MAXINE GORDON why she based her new novel on the Lord Lucan case ahead of her visit to the York Literature Festival

THEORIES abound over what happened to Lord Lucan after the murder of his nanny and violent assault on his wife at their London home in 1974.

Sensational headlines have followed the case for decades, with speculation over what happened to Lucan, who, despite an extensive investigation, was never found. He was legally declared dead in 1999 and his estranged wife Veronica died in 2017. She never changed her story, maintaining Lucan was guilty of the crimes.

Award-winning author Jill Dawson, who grew up in Yorkshire, has taken the Lucan mystery as the inspiration for her new novel The Language of Birds.

It tells the story of two young women from the Fens, Mandy and Rosy, who come to London in the 1970s to work as nannies for wealthy London families. Mandy finds a post with Lady Morven who is involved in a messy separation from her charismatic husband Dickie. Mandy and Rosy remain close, and sense something dark and dangerous is lurking in the Morven household, but cannot anticipate the tragic events that will unfold.

After all these years, why did the author wish to resurrect the ghost of Lucan through this novel?

Jill, 57, said: "I was a little girl when this happened in 1974, so I don't remember it from back then." But, she says, the story captured the national imagination in such a way that so much has been written about the fate of Lord Lucan since. "There are certain things we all know about – that he escaped and perhaps gets a second life somewhere else.

"I was watching a new drama about him and that triggered something. I didn't know anything about his victim, about her life. That's what the novel is really about and he is the background figure."

His victim was Sandra Rivett who came to London and worked as a nanny for Lady Lucan for just ten weeks before her murder. The dedication in the book simply reads "For Sandra".

Jill, who spent her teenage years in Clifford, near Wetherby, has first-hand experience of leaving a rural area and coming to London as a nanny because she left Yorkshire to au pair in the capital for a wealthy family.

"I left my Yorkshire village for Chiswick and to be an au pair for a bohemian family which was very different for me. I remember going to the Savoy as a family to have a birthday do for my four-year-old charge. It was an eye-opener."

Jill paints a vivid picture of what life would have been like for girls like Mandy and Rosy coming to London from the sticks in the 1970s.

"It was the 1970s and maybe London was swinging, but in rural places life would have been more like being back in the 1950s," says Jill. "For girls like Rosy and Mandy, they couldn't get the pill, couldn't have boyfriends and sexual relationships without facing stigma or judgement. London represented freedom."

Jill is a well established author and also the founder of a mentoring scheme for new writers, Gold Dust. She lives in the Cambridgeshire Fens and will be appearing at a special Q&A dinner at The Ivy during York Literature Festival on Tuesday, March 26, from 7pm. Tickets are available on Eventbrite.

Festival highlights ...

Jill is one of many celebrated authors attending this year's York Literature Festival, which runs for the next two weeks.

Here are some other dates for your diary:

In Conversation with Joanna Trollope

St Peter's School

Tomorrow: Sunday, March 17 2pm-3pm

Ticket price: £15

Veteran author Joanna Trollope has been writing for more than 30 years and is lauded for the social commentary of her fiction. Her bestselling novels include The Rector’s Wife, Marrying the Mistress, Daughters in Law and City of Friends.

Pre-Show Talk of The Remains of the Day with Barney Norris

York Theatre Royal

Wednesday, March 20 6.30pm-7.30 pm

Free (but book your place via York Theatre Royal Box Office 01904 623568)

Don’t miss the pre-show talk by adaptor Barney Norris on how he worked with Kazuo Ishiguro on preparing the Booker Prize-winning novel for the stage.

The Remains of the Day, starring Stephen Boxer and Niamh Cusack, will run at the theatre from Tuesday to next Saturday, with tickets from £15.

It tells the story of a 1930s England, as fascism builds in Europe, through the eyes of a butler at Darlington Hall, with themes of regret and love.

Alan Johnson, In My Life: A Music Memoir

St Peter's School

Saturday, March 23 3pm-4.30pm

Ticket prices: £10

From postman, to politician to popular writer, the former Labour cabinet minister brings his latest book to York. It's a memoir recounting his love of music, featuring favourite tunes from the likes of Bob Dylan, David Bowie, Lonnie Donegan, Bruce Springsteen and The Beatles.

Find out more about York Literature Festival and book tickets at: yorkliteraturefestival.co.uk