Well, with me, there’s always a story to tell and today is no exception. I’m a bit behind with this post because I had flu over half term and then this week I managed to drop a desk on my foot. My foot is now an interesting colour to say the least and my toes resemble sausages more than anything else. Thank goodness I managed to see the wands before this happened! As a result, I’m just a bit slower than usual so I apologise that my book choice for February has taken me so long to get up. I’ve also broken my ‘I can’t buy anymore books’ ban because I felt sorry for myself. Never mind – onwards!! Thankfully, it is a brilliant one so I hope this makes it worthwhile!
For February, my choice was: Read a book that takes you back in time. I love novels that transport us back to another place and another time. The writer that came to mind for this was Stacey Halls. I absolutely adored The Familiars, which I read for a previous reading challenge. I still haven’t got to The Foundling but I’d got a beautiful hardback, signed copy of Mrs England so I decided to pick that. On with the review!
What’s it all about?
Despite the title of the novel being Mrs England, at first it appears that the character of Ruby, or Nurse May, is more important. As the novels opens, Ruby has to make the difficult decision to leave her position caring for the children of Mr and Mrs Radlett as they embark on a new adventure in America. Despite not seeing her family very often, Ruby doesn’t feel like she can leave the country, despite her love for the children in her care. Therefore, she has to head back to the Norland institute in the hope of finding another position. It’s slim pickings apart from one advert for a family in West Yorkshire. Four children, two boys and two girls, belonging to the mill owner, Mr Charles and Mrs Lilian England. And so our story begins at Hardcastle House.
‘The room was so quiet I could hear my heart breaking, and it sounded like a daisy snapping at the stem.’
Ruby throws herself into her work despite the initial frostiness within the house. All but Mr England seem to be distrusting of Ruby but he sole focus is the children: Millie, Rebecca (Decca), Saul and baby Charley. You have this feeling that she’s just walked into something and it’s there, hanging in the air. There are clear differences between the girls and the boys of the household. Ruby becomes closest to Decca as she reminds her of her own sister Elsie. The family unit and Ruby fall into a rhythm and life settles down a bit. Things do seem a little strange though, unsettling and like something just isn’t quite right. However, the children do get the opportunity to leave about being a blacksmith from Mr Sheldrake. This is a very exciting time for them all but it does end rather strangely. Ruby discovers a letter that was given to Decca for her mother. This is the start of something, she just isn’t sure what that something is.
‘My mind buzzed with possibilities, but kept returning to one. Either Mrs England was not expecting a letter from the blacksmith Mr Sheldrake, or she was. In which case they were in correspondence. Which meant… What did it mean?’
Ruby is thrown into turmoil about what to do. She finds herself in a very precarious position but desperately feels the need to speak with Mrs England. What she gains from that conversation makes her think further. Yet, she is a professional and her employment means that she has to look after the children, so looking after the children is what she does. Until one unfortunate day when events take a turn for the worst. Decca is sent away to school, sending shock to the household and upset to Ruby. Life continues but it isn’t quite the same and the uneasy feeling only increases. Mrs England seems completely under the control of her husband; she doesn’t seem to be allowed her own thoughts and we get the feeling that everything is internalised with her. We do see her protective motherly instincts kick in when Saul is taken poorly. Even this event though sees Mrs England silenced and removed. After all, the majority of her life is behind a locked door.
‘There were so many things I wished to ask her – what Mr Sheldrake put in his letter; why her husband locked her in her room. Why she had such disdain for her entire family; why she was, as her mother put it, like lint swept into a corner, brittle and lonely. Why nobody came to the house; why she never left.’
For me, this seems to be the best place to end the review because I don’t want to spoil anything. Nevertheless, by the end of the novel things are much clearer than they were at the start of the novel. The voiceless characters within the novel have the opportunity to speak and Mrs England’s story is eventually told. Ruby ends up seeking a new career opportunity but this time, she gets a lead position: Head Nurse based on her work with the England family. Ruby really is an incredible woman and without her, this novel is nothing.
‘These things are always a part of us, in one way or another, and I’m not suggesting you’ll ever put it behind you. But I’m yet to meet a student or probationer who embodies fortis in arduis more than you. I admire you very much.’
I love this book so much. Ruby has to be one of my most favourite characters within a piece of fiction. I also found myself gravitating to Mrs England too. The plot structure of this novel is also one of my favourites – a series of events that make you question every little thing, every little detail. It left me wanting more which is the way any novel should leave you in my opinion. Also, it’s got a stunning cover which fits perfectly with the time period as well. This book is hauntingly beautiful.
Until next time my loves! (Hopefully it will be a bit sooner as well – foot depending!)
Big love xxx