After reading so many positive reviews of Mrs England, a new historical fiction by Stacey Hall, I simply had to read it. The title is bold and strangely evocative and the cover is gorgeous too, but it’s what lies between that is utterly compelling.
A slow burn of a book, it draws you in with beautiful prose and marvellously but economically crafted characters (this is high praise – Hall allows you to see and even understand a person with a deft few words). The titular character from which the book earns its title doesn’t appear for quite a while and, indeed, the story is told from the first-person point of view of Norland nurse, Ruby May. Quiet, efficient, in some ways Mary Poppins-like, Ruby is a woman who takes her work and the charges in her care very seriously. She knows her place and responsibilities. The Norland Institute motto – Fortitude in Adversity – is etched on her conscience.
When circumstances send Ruby to Yorkshire to care for the four children of the wealthy England family, who are part of a greater dynasty who have made their riches from wool and milling, she meets the challenges of a new family, new charges and new area with aplomb. The master of the house, Mr England, is nothing like she expected, nor is his quiet, disinterested wife, the lovely but very fragile Mrs England.
As the weeks go by and Ruby settles in, the children responding to her genuine care and ability to nurture and bring out the best, she begins to sense that all is not as it seems in this strange but beguiling family. As letters go missing, information is misunderstood or misconstrued and mysterious goings-on begin to occur, Ruby starts to wonder if she has misjudged not only the family, but her own abilities. After all, Ruby has her own secrets, ones that if they should be revealed will not only threaten her livelihood, but that of those she loves.
This is one of those books that lingers in a strange and quite wondrous way. The telling is superb and even though in some ways not much seems to happen, it is like an ice-berg with nine-tenths occurring below the surface. You cannot stop turning the pages, wanting to know, to find out more. The story-telling is first-rate, each scene building on the last, persuading you to keep going so you can see the complete picture… and yet, it remains somehow elusive. And then, just when you think you have it all sorted and neatly wrapped up, Hall delivers one of the best OMG moments on the final page. It overturns everything and, if you hadn’t already gleaned why the book carries the title it does, this will cement it for you.
A really clever, completely fabulous read.