Source: Review copy
Publication: 10 June 2021 from Manilla Press/Zaffre Books
My thanks to Tracy at Compulsive Readers and Zaffre Books for an opportunity to review
West Yorkshire, 1904.
When newly graduated nurse Ruby May takes a position looking after the children of Charles and Lilian England, a wealthy couple from a powerful dynasty of mill owners, she hopes it will be the fresh start she needs. But as she adapts to life at the isolated Hardcastle House, it becomes clear there’s something not quite right about the beautiful, mysterious Mrs England. Ostracised by the servants and feeling increasingly uneasy, Ruby is forced to confront her own demons in order to prevent history from repeating itself. After all, there’s no such thing as the perfect family – and she should know.
Simmering with slow-burning menace, Mrs England is a portrait of an Edwardian marriage, weaving an enthralling story of men and women, power and control, courage, truth and the very darkest deception. Set against the atmospheric landscape of West Yorkshire, Stacey Halls’ third novel proves her one of the most exciting and compelling new storytellers of our times.
Stacey Halls builds up a beautiful, encompassing, atmospheric world and then populates it with characters that stand out. From the outset I was drawn to Ruby May, a Norland Institute nanny. Ruby is the daughter of a Birmingham shop-keeper and she has attended the Norland Institute as a scholarship girl. Ruby has been working for a glamorous and wealthy couple, the Radletts, caring for their only child, Georgina. It’s her first job since graduating from the Norland Academy and the family are as thrilled to have her as she is to be there.
Then out of the blue, Mrs Radlett tells Ruby that that Mr Radlett’s job means relocating the family to Chicago. Ruby is devastated. The family wants her to go with them; that was never in question, but for reasons of her own, Ruby will not go. The Norland Institute is less than pleased. Norland nannies are trained to expect to stay with a family when it moves, and leaving a family before a child has outgrown a nanny is frowned upon.
But Ruby is adamant and offers to take on any family that will have her if she can stay in the country. It is clear that Ruby has reasons for refusing to travel abroad, and she is clearly keen to stay in contact with her family, but more than that she is not saying.
So Ruby finds another placement, one that Norland would not easily have filled without her volunteering. She is to work for the England family and their four children. Mr England runs a cotton mill set amidst the dark woods of the Yorkshire moors surrounded by a rather bleak countryside; so different from the London society she has been used to.
Arriving on a wet and windy night, Ruby realises just how isolated this place is when she has to dismount her carriage and walk through the dark woods to get to Hardcastle House where she is to reside. She learns that the children’s previous nurse had been Mr England’s nanny and had taken on his children, finally dying of old age.
Ruby May has a lot to do during her first days and weeks at Hardcastle House. Her predecessor’s eyesight was not so good in her latter years and so there is a great deal of basic housekeeping to do in the nursery. To her surprise, Ruby finds that her orders come direct from Mr Charles England and that Mrs England, Lilian, has little to do with either the children or the running of the house.
Ruby finds herself in somewhat of an isolated position. She is not a servant and the other household staff look on her with suspicion, suspecting she thinks herself a cut above them. So Ruby ploughs a lonely furrow, becoming the children’s guide and protector; teaching them, playing with them and keeping them nicely washed and dressed. All these are normal duties; ones which are usually carried out to allow a loving mother to be the beautiful, smiling presence in her children’s lives – but that’s not happening here. Instead it is the affable cigar smoking Charles England who stops in to the nursery to enjoy time with his children.
The reader knows that this is a house in which something is off. Ruby knows it too, and she feels so sorry for Mr England who bears the burden of his wife’s cold exterior and has to be everything to his children.
Ruby May is such a brilliant character. Determined, hard-working, and so concerned for her family, in particular her sister, to whom she writes weekly. She sends half her wages home, too. Though we don’t know quite why she is concerned for her sister, it shines through in the way she eagerly awaits her letters.
Stacy Halls allows us to fall for Ruby May while building an atmospheric and menacing undercurrent to life at Hardcastle Hall. There’s a naivety to Ruby that alerts the reader to the possibility of real danger and this helps keep tension high as events develop.
Hall wonderfully creates a suspenseful mystery with a dangerous edge. Utilising a terrifically created dark atmosphere of bleak countryside, dangerous crags and dark woods the whole feel of the novel is one of impending disaster. As we puzzle over what secrets Ruby is keeping, we begin to realise the terrible power that is being exerted in Hardcastle House – a power that threatens the children in Ruby’s care.
Mrs England is a slow burner, all the better to build to the menace that is the poison at the root of the relationships in Hardcastle Hall. Both a Gothic mystery and also an exploration of a marriage, Mrs England shines a light on the status of women in Edwardian society.
Verdict: A beautiful, dark portrait of a bleak Edwardian marriage, full of deception, misdirected power and terrible secrets. Atmospheric, simmering with tension, with richly-drawn characters and a strong sense of place that permeates the book, Mrs England is a fine historical novel with themes that resonate today. I could not put it down.
Stacey Halls was born in 1989 and grew up in Rossendale, Lancashire. She studied journalism at the University of Central Lancashire and has written for publications including the Guardian, Stylist, Psychologies, The Independent, The Sun and Fabulous. Her first book The Familiars was the bestselling debut novel of 2019. The Foundling was her second novel.