Still She Wished for Company by Margaret Irwin

Times past, times present, or times to come, were they not all one, if he had the power to make them so?

Part ghost story, part time-slip fantasy and part historical fiction, Margaret Irwin’s first novel from 1924, recently reissued with a pretty new cover, is a wonderful, dreamlike read.

Jan Challard is a young woman living in 1920s London and trying to find her place in the new society which has emerged from the aftermath of the First World War. Life seems to be going well, but Jan feels restless: she is bored with her office job, bored with the nice, suitable young man who wants to marry her, and haunted by a face in a portrait – a Gentleman Unknown, who seems to be following her everywhere she goes.

In 1779, we meet another bored young woman: seventeen-year-old Juliana Clare, the youngest daughter of an aristocratic family with an estate in Berkshire. Juliana spends her days walking in the gardens of Chidleigh House and writing in her journal, while waiting for something more exciting to happen and remembering a line from her favourite childhood fairytale: “…still she sat and still she span, and still she wished for company”. Company does eventually arrive, but perhaps not in the way Juliana had expected.

First, following the death of Lord Chidleigh, Juliana’s eldest brother Lucian returns after a long absence to take up his father’s title and his inheritance. Stories of the wild, debauched lifestyle Lucian has been leading have reached the family and he receives a frosty welcome at Chidleigh House. Juliana is the only one who is happy to see him and as the brother and sister grow closer, something strange begins to happen: the centuries separating Juliana’s life from Jan’s seem to dissolve and merge. Jan can see Juliana and Juliana can see Jan, but which of them is the ghost and which of them is real?

This is a very short novel, but just the right length for the story – or stories – being told, and it really doesn’t need to be any longer. Jan’s story frames Juliana’s and is confined to a short section at the beginning of the book and another at the end; Margaret Irwin appears to be more comfortable writing about the eighteenth century (a period she obviously knew well and knew how to bring to life) and most of the novel concentrates on Juliana. I couldn’t help comparing this to most of the dual time-period books being written today, where I usually find that far too much time is spent on a weaker present day narrative, leaving me impatient to get back to the more interesting historical one. The structure of Still She Wished for Company is much more effective, in my opinion, as I could become fully immersed in Juliana’s story without being pulled out of it after every few chapters.

The book is beautifully written, with the same elegant prose and powerful descriptive writing I’ve loved in the other Margaret Irwin novels I’ve read. There are no obvious anachronisms, no dialogue that feels jarringly wrong for the time period…it was just a pleasure to read! The eighteenth century storyline on its own could have been the basis for a compelling novel, but the addition of the ghost story/time travel elements make it something special, particularly as they are handled so well that they feel almost believable. It’s a lovely, magical read and just the sort of thing I was in the mood for at the moment!

Thanks to Agora Books for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

13 thoughts on “Still She Wished for Company by Margaret Irwin

  1. Pam Thomas says:

    I absolutely adored this book when I was a young adult, and parts of it still linger in my memory. Margaret Irwin was one of my favourite authors and a big influence. I’ve got a copy, shall have to dig it out and re-read, for the first time in about 50 years!

    • Helen says:

      I wish I’d been aware of Margaret Irwin when I was younger, as I’m sure I would have loved her books then too. This one still has a lot to offer an older reader, though – and it’s so haunting and beautifully written! I hope you enjoy your re-read.

  2. whitecrow2 says:

    I read this as a child, and still have my aunt’s copy. One of my favourite books all my life long, that beautiful prose, the doomed love, the Scottish Prince, what not to love? So glad it’s available again, it is a remarkable book. So glad someone else has read it too, and shares my love of it. Thank you.

    • Helen says:

      I’m not sure if the Scottish prince is in a different Margaret Irwin book? Anyway, I agree that it’s great to see her books being made available again. I’ve only read a few of them so far and am looking forward to reading the rest.

  3. whatmeread says:

    I have only read Irwin’s Elizabeth books. This one sounds interesting, although I’m never sure whether I’m going to like books with magic in them. Who knew they were doing split timeframe books back then? Well, except Daphne du Maurier, that is.

  4. piningforthewest says:

    Thanks for writing about this one, I’ve enjoyed Irwin’s Elizabeth books recently, it sounds like I’d like this one too.

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