Mrs England is one of the books longlisted for the 2022 Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction. Although I hadn’t even heard of a lot of the titles on this year’s longlist, this particular book is one that I had been planning to read anyway. I enjoyed both of Stacey Halls’ previous novels, The Foundling and The Familiars, and was just waiting for the right moment to start reading this one.
The novel opens in 1904 with Ruby May, a trained children’s nurse from the prestigious Norland College, discovering that the family she works for are preparing to emigrate. Ruby is invited to accompany them, but turns down the opportunity, saying that she can’t be too far away from her younger sister and brothers. Instead, she finds a new position looking after the four children of Charles and Lilian England, a wealthy couple who own a cotton mill in the West Riding of Yorkshire.
On arriving at the Englands’ home, Hardcastle House, Ruby quickly senses that something is not right. Although Mr England is charming and friendly, Mrs England seems distant and withdrawn, showing very little interest in her children’s lives and leaving the running of the household to her husband. The other servants also make Ruby feel unwelcome, but she finds the four England children delightful and immerses herself in her work. As the days and weeks go by, Ruby becomes increasingly aware of the dark undercurrents within the household and wishes there was something she could do to help. However, there are mysteries lurking in Ruby’s own past and she has problems of her own to deal with. Why does she refuse to open letters from her father? Why is she so afraid of having her photograph taken? And what is the real reason for her reluctance to leave the country?
I think this is my favourite of the three books I’ve read by Stacey Halls. Although it’s quite a slow-paced novel, with most of the drama and revelations coming near the end, I was drawn completely into Ruby’s story from the beginning. As the novel’s narrator, Ruby is a genuinely nice person and I liked her immediately. It takes a long time for her back story to unfold and in the meantime I’d formed a few theories about what must have happened with her father – however, I wasn’t quite right! In her author’s note, Stacey Halls states that she based Ruby May’s story on a real person and incident that occurred in the late 19th century, but don’t be tempted to look at this until you’ve finished the book. The story that unfolds within the walls of Hardcastle House is even more intriguing and, again, I thought I knew what was going on only to find that, although I did guess some of it correctly, I was still missing some parts of the overall picture.
The descriptions of the Yorkshire scenery are very well done, particularly the parts of the book set in the Hardcastle Crags, as are the descriptions of the Englands’ cotton mill, the blacksmith’s forge and all the other locations Ruby and the children visit throughout the story. I also found it interesting to read about the Norland Nurses – the kind of training they received and the standards they were expected to conform to.
I enjoyed this book very much, but to be honest, I’m surprised it’s on the Walter Scott Prize longlist as it doesn’t seem quite as ‘literary’ as the books the judges usually go for. I hope it progresses to the shortlist next month, but we’ll have to wait and see.
This is book 14/50 read for the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge 2022.