Being a big fan of Stacey Halls’ previous two books (The Familiars and The Foundling) I was very excited to get started on Mrs England. Like its predecessors, this is historical fiction (set in 1904) and centres around a strong female character trying to work out her place in the world.
Opening sentence: The woods at night were far from silent.
Nurse Ruby May
Yes, so Ruby May is our narrator. A student of the prestigious Norland Institute, she has trained to be one of the very best children’s nurses in the country.
When she finds herself placed with affluent mill owners, Mr Charles and Mrs Lilian England of Hardcastle House, Yorkshire to look after and nurture their four children (ranging from teenage Decca to baby Charley) she enjoys it at first, but soon realises there is more than meets the eye bubbling away under the surface.
Speaking of, Ruby has her own family traumas that she is concealing. An incident with her father when she was younger has shaped her whole life since and she is torn between letting people know about it and hiding her past.
Perhaps they caught a whiff of tragedy on me; perhaps I reeked of it.
I love a Gothic story and there was definitely a nod to the genre here. The isolated Yorkshire moors setting, sense of unrest and secrets to be uncovered had Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre vibes and that only made me fall for Mrs England even more.
A slow burner overall, I was completely engrossed in the rural setting and Edwardian time-frame – Stacey Halls is so good at transporting you into an era – and Ruby May is a character that you really care for. She is earnest and pure and it’s her sense of right and wrong that makes her so strong. That’s not to say she doesn’t find herself drawn to the wrong things sometimes. It’s this complexity in her that makes her so intriguing.
He regarded me over his moustache and said nothing. I realised I was afraid of him and yet drawn to him at the same time.
I would say I found Mrs England to be a comfort read: I anticipated the tone thanks to Stacey Halls’ previous novels and I love a good slice of historical fiction with a strong conclusion and sense of putting the world to rights. Although a slight story curve ball was thrown in at the end (I think!) that definitely left me pondering. That and why the novel was named for Mrs England, rather than Ruby May. Intrigued? You’ll have to give Mrs England a read to find out…