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.
Having read and thoroughly enjoyed Stacey Hall’s debut, The Familiars, I was thrilled to win a proof copy of her third novel, Mrs England, which offers a portrait of an Edwardian marriage from the unusual perspective of the family nursemaid.
Ruby May is a newly qualified Norland nursemaid and, as the book opens, is happily settled in her first placement. When her placement family decide to emigrate to America however, Ruby is forced to return to The Norland Institute to seek another position – she is unable to leave England for personal reasons of her own. Desperate to prove herself, Ruby accepts a position as nursemaid to the four children of Charles and Lillian England, wealthy mill owners.
Transported to the mill towns and moors of rural Yorkshire, and thrown into a busy but neglected nursery, Ruby is soon a world away from her comfort zone. Mrs England seems to take little interest in her children and, ostracised by the other servants in the household, Ruby is soon acting as surrogate mother, teacher, maid, and nurse all rolled into one. Yet beneath the cold exterior of the Mistress, Ruby cannot help but feel that there is something more to Mrs England. And that beneath the charming exterior of the Master and the cheery façade of the England family, there is something terribly wrong.
As with The Familiars, Stacey Hall’s has created a fantastic female protagonist in Ruby May. Smart, caring, practical, and yet with a hint of naivety, Ruby is an immensely likeable and relatable narrator. A scholarship girl at the prestigious Norland Institute, she is determined to prove herself as a capable professional nursemaid – and to escape the dark shadows of her own family’s past.
I really empathised with Ruby’s desire to prove herself professionally, as well as to protect and care for the children in her charge. Although incredibly naïve at times, Ruby’s determination to focus upon her role as nursemaid and to not go prying into Mr & Mrs England’s secrets felt believable given her tentative position within the household and what we come to learn about her own family and background. I also found the contrast between Ruby’s Norland-educated sense of propriety and the more relaxed attitudes of the inhabitants of Yorkshire to be quite amusing at times!
Although a bit of a slow-burn, Mrs England is packed to brimming with an underlying sense of menace. Like Ruby, the reader is aware from the off that something is not quite right at Hardcastle House. But, like Ruby, working out exactly what – and who – is wrong, proves tricky – and there are a good few unexpected turns along the way before the truth is revealed. There were a couple of plot strands that I wish had been developed further – some of the ‘romantic’ elements felt a little forced, and Ruby’s own background and its relationship to the main plot doesn’t really begin to develop until the last third of the novel, but the characters and the atmosphere kept me engaged even at moments where I felt the plot was a little thin.
As a portrait of Edwardian society, Mrs England is wonderfully evocative of the era. You get a real sense of a society in flux – caught between the constraints of the Victorian era and the possibilities of a new century. The novel is also a portrait of an Edwardian marriage – and a fascinating insight into the role of the nursemaid. I found the sections in the book that provided some of the history and rationale of the Norland Institute really compelling, and the novel made me realise just how Norland nursemaids were changing the expectations of what it was to be a ‘nanny’ within upper class Edwardian society.
Told in a lively, engaging style and with a well-realised sense of time and place, Mrs England is sure to delight fans of Stacey Hall’s previous novels – and deserves to bring her in a whole host of new readers! Anyone who loves a good historical novel is sure to find much to enjoy in this pacy, engaging read that has an intriguing marital mystery at its core.
Mrs England by Stacey Halls is published by Manilla Press (Zaffre Books) and is available now from all good booksellers and online retailers including Hive, Bookshop.org, Waterstones, and Wordery. My thanks go to the publisher for providing a copy of the book in return for an honest and unbiased review.
If you can, please support a local indie bookshop by ordering from them either in person or online! Some of my favourites include Booka Bookshop, The Big Green Bookshop, Sam Read Booksellers, Book-ish, Scarthin Books, and Berts Books.
Reviews on The Shelf are free, honest, and unbiased and I don’t use affiliate links on my posts. However if you enjoy the blog please consider buying me a coffee on Ko-Fi!