Mrs England by Stacey Halls

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A young woman takes a position at a large house in a remote part of Yorkshire, and soon realises that something very strange is going on.  No, there aren’t any mad wives in the attic, and the house doesn’t get burnt to the ground (despite an unexplained incident with a gas leak); but why do both Mr and Mrs England, her employers, act so strangely all the time, why do doors get locked and letters disappear, why is their eldest daughter suddenly sent away to school, what is their connection with the mysterious local blacksmith, and why do they all seem so uncomfortable around Mrs England’s wealthy relatives?  And what is our Norland-trained nanny herself, our protagonist Ruby, hiding about her own family background?

I’m not going to give the game away, but I will say that one character meets a sticky end at Hardcastle Crags, near Hebden Bridge: the location is an important part of the book, and very well-described.

The book never actually mentions Hebden Bridge, just refers to “the town”, although the name is given in the afterword.   Readers from West Yorkshire and East Lancashire will pick up on the location very early on, though: the house is called “Hardcastle House” and there’s a reference to the Rochdale Canal.  Then we are actually told that we’re near Hardcastle Crags, and of course the crags then play a crucial part in how events play out.  Also, the Englands’ mill is obviously Gibson Mill, the mill (now owned by the National Trust) by the crags: it’s a cotton mill rather than a wool mill, unusual on the Yorkshire side of the Pennines, and we’re told at the end that it’s to be turned into an entertainments venue.  The story of the Englands –  with a touch of The Thorn Birds, as well as Jane Eyre – is fictional, but Ruby’s back story is based on real events.

I wonder if the choice of name signifies anything.  You do come across people whose surname is England – football writers used to have great fun with headlines in the days when Mike England was the manager of Wales – but it’s unusual.  It doesn’t seem to have any particular significance, though: I don’t think that the plot would have been any different if the mistress of the house had been called Mrs Bloggs!

It’s a domestic novel, so, if you’re expecting references to the suffragettes, the free trade debate, the Entente Cordiale or anything else relating to 1904-05, when the book’s set, you won’t get it, but it’s very much an Edwardian novel.  Just to be picky, I don’t think that even the wealthiest of Cottontots would have looked down on a lawyer’s son – professions trump trade! – and I’m not sure that anyone at the time would have referred to “West Yorkshire” rather than “the West Riding of Yorkshire”, but that really is me being picky 🙂 .

I did really enjoy this book, and I was very keen to find out the answers to all the mysteries, but I felt that it could have gone a lot deeper.  That’s partly because it’s all told from Ruby’s viewpoint, so we only see the complexities of Mr and Mrs England’s relationship from the necessarily limited perspective of an outsider, but Ruby’s own back story isn’t really integrated into the main plot, and the other characters – the other servants, and Mrs England’s relatives – flit into and out of the story but always seem like they’ve got more to say if they get the chance … which they don’t.

However, I did enjoy it, as I said.  The suspense and the mysteries drew the reader in and I was certainly very keen to find out what was going on; and the descriptions of the area were very well-written.  In fact, I really must pay a visit to Hardcastle Crags and Gibson Mill some time soon.

I had this on my Amazon wishlist, and I was very impressed when the Amazon app on my phone sent me a message to say that it was temporarily on offer, meaning that I got the book for £1.99 when the current price is £10 for the hardback edition or £7.19 for the Kindle edition.  So thank you to the app for that, and thank you to Stacey Halls for another interesting read.

 

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