The blurb on the book mentioned the word ‘Gothic’ and so I opened the book expecting some chilling scenes and perhaps even hauntings. My earlier experience of this author had been The Familiars, a gripping story about witch hunts in 17th Century England. So I knew Halls could take us to some dark places. And there is a degree of darkness here, of menace even, but is it Gothic?
Certainly there’s a large stately home in an isolated part of Yorkshire. It’s mill country, and the air is thick with coal-dust from all the steam-powered cotton milling machinery. Ruby May is a Norland nanny who has just said goodbye to her first family now they’re off to Chicago. She’d love to go too, but her own family need her. She’s a humble grocer’s daughter from Birmingham and there’s a tragedy in her past that has left her hating her father and with a disabled sister.
She takes the only job on offer – nobody wants a nanny in the summer holiday season – to take charge of four children ranging from a year to ten year’s old. Mr England’s old nanny has died and the children soon warm to Ruby, who takes them on outings and supervises a better diet. She is almost like the mother to them – Mrs England rarely leaves her room. Mr England makes up for his wife’s lack of engagement with her children by being an affectionate father and is surprisingly friendly to Ruby, which she finds disconcerting.
Other characters include Mr Booth, young Saul’s tutor, who confides in Ruby that there’s something not quite right in the household. Blaise, the housemaid, is plain spoken and haughty towards Ruby, as if she suspects Ruby might lord it over the staff and wants to nip any such superiority in the bud. We meet Mrs England’s family, the Greatrexes, who own a larger mill and even a town, and with whom Mrs England has a strained relationship. So Ruby is caught between upstairs and downstairs, not quite a servant while having to tiptoe round the feelings of her employers.
Thank goodness she warms to the children, but you can’t help feeling that they could be in danger and this drives the plot. There’s a hint of The Turn of the Screw by Henry James, so perhaps that’s where the Gothic quality lies. Ruby does all she can to keep the children safe, but she can’t do it all alone, and who can she trust? The story builds to a dramatic ending and although it takes a while to get going, it’s still really engaging. I think this is because Ruby herself is interesting: her worries about her own family and in particular her falling out with her father. Halls feeds out just enough information to keep you curious.
One story thread of Mrs England is based on an event that really happened, which is briefly described in a note at the end of the novel. If you want to maintain the maximum suspense as you read, don’t read this until you finish the story, but it is extraordinary. I like the way Stacey Halls seems to draw inspiration from real events for her novels – she is turning out to be one of my must-read authors. She really gets under the skin of her characters, bringing the past to life and this book continues the trend. It’s a gently cracking read and gets a four out of five from me.