THE KENSINGTON SYSTEM is the third story in CHRISTMAS DINNER OF SOULS, told by Sir Algernon thoroughbred-Pilt. It’s a story within a story: the first part is about a man whose car breaks down one night and is forced to spend the night in the crumbling and unpleasant Kensington Manor. That night, he’s awoken by the sound of scratching in the walls – human fingernails scratching – and finds the diary of a young girl named Eliza Kensington who lived in the house over a hundred years ago.
The narrator reads the diary, and begins to unravel the gruesome mystery of the sound in the walls. When poor Eliza Kensington was orphaned, she was handed into the care of two vile, horrible relatives named Boggs and Ulcer, who were determined to make money out of her by marrying her off to a rich prince. To do this, they invented something called “The Kensington System” – a series of rules for breaking down her rebellious, outspoken nature and make young Eliza perfect princess material…
When I wrote this story, I wanted to write one of my favourite kinds of horror story: when the story is told through a found object. They used to do this a lot in old horror stories to give the story an edge of realism: they would pretend that the story came from an anonymous letter found in a desk, or an ancient book which the author would swear was real. I loved the idea of the main character finding a diary that detailed the gruesome story of Kensington Manor!
The main inspiration for this story is a truly shocking one – the Kensington System really existed! As unbelievable as it sounds, it was a system invented to train the young Queen Victoria (before she was queen, of course) to be loyal to her mother, the Duchess of Kent, and attendant, Sir John Conroy. The Duchess and Sir Conroy were worried that once Victoria was crowned, she might become closer to other family members and make the two of them less powerful. So, they devised a series of rules for Victoria to break her down make her feel totally dependent on them. How despicable is that?!
Of course, in my story I exaggerate the Kensington System and make up a few unrealistic bits to make it more gruesome and unpleasant… for example, young Victoria was never forced into the walls of Kensington Palace and made to eat spiders! However, most of rules in my story were based on what really happened to poor Victoria. Here is what was involved in the real-life Kensington System:
Young Victoria was never allowed to be apart from either her mother, her tutor, or her governesses. She had to sleep in the same bedroom as her mother every day of her life.
She wasn’t allowed to play with any other children, and was only allowed to meet people approved of by her mother and Sir Conroy. When she was a teenager, she was allowed two playmates: her half sister, Princess Feodora of Leiningen, and Conroy’s daughter.
She had to live by a strict daily timetable. Every single one of her actions were strictly monitored and recorded by her mother, every single day.
Victoria was rarely allowed to leave the place grounds. Servants weren’t allowed to talk to her, and she was encouraged to be on her own as much as possible: in fact, there were clever mirrors called butler mirrors installed in every room so that servants could see her coming and run away.
When it became clear that Victoria would inherit the throne, her mother even tried to make her appoint Sir Conroy as her personal secretary and treasurer so they could still control her!
The system was designed to make Queen Victoria feel useless and weak without her mother and Sir Conroy – but it didn’t work. Victoria grew to hate the System, and her mother and Conroy for controlling her life so much: in fact, when she became Queen she cut off contact with them entirely. She banned Conroy from coming anywhere near her, and only spoke to her mother again once she started having children.
When I heard about the Kensington System, I was fascinated. I had no idea that somehow so horrific had happened to such a famous historical figure: I loved the idea of a child being made to follow such strict rules, and then enacting terrible revenge later in life!
As for the scratching in the walls, the influence for that is a little more gruesome. The first flat I lived in was a little grotty, and had a “rat superhighway” in the wall beside my bed – every night, I’d be able to hear the sound of dozens of rats scurrying right beside my head!! It’s an improvement on human fingernails, but not a massive one… unsurprisingly, it inspired me enough to work it into the story!
The final influence is an act of homage to one of my favourite books of the last few years – Beetle Boy by M. G. Leonard! I adore this book, and was so inspired by the disgusting characters of Humphrey and Pickering that I ended up making my own two versions in Boggs and Ulcer. Hopefully M.G. Leonard won’t sue me for plagiarism – it’s the greatest form of flattery!