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Book Club Review: 'Mrs England' by Stacey Halls; an Historical, Entertaining Story

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Ann loves to read, is a member of a book club, and enjoys recommending stories which appeal to her eclectic taste.

Mystery and psychological manipulation are in this compelling read!

Mystery and psychological manipulation are in this compelling read!

Book Club

I am an enthusiastic member of a local book club in Somerset, England. Reading has always been my passion but life kind of got in the way of having several stories on the go at once, though I never stopped reading. Now I have the time.

We read a book every six weeks on average, take it in turns to choose, order copies from the library or on Kindle, then meet up in a local pub to discuss our views and enjoy a sociable couple of hours over a good meal. If you’re thinking about joining such a group, I would encourage you to do so. It broadens the mind and gives you a like-minded set of friends.


Mrs England

Nurse Ruby May, from the Norland Institute (a real nursing agency which still exists today), loves the first family where we see her and where she cares for two children, but she can’t go with them when they ask her to emigrate with them. The reason is hidden, as it is for much of the book.

She then accepts a post, again via Norland, at the solemn house of Mr and Mrs England in the industrial north, a stark contrast in every way to her former position of warmth, love and respect.

Charles England owns a cotton mill and shows Nurse May around; she is not sure what to make of him or how to react to him and he takes advantage of her disposition, plays with her gentle nature. We see the pollution, the conditions, the child labour and his decision not to change with the times, eventually leading to financial ruin. The descriptions are vivid, atmospheric and powerful.


Undertones

There are shades of the mad wife in ‘Jane Eyre’, though all is not what it seems. We’re led to believe that Mrs England, Lilian, is the weird one, though her husband is by no means an innocent party. The nursery is locked at night; is this to protect them or just control them? He appears to love his children and his wife seems distant as though she doesn’t care, though she says it’s all to appease him, for fear she will lose them;

“it has to seem his idea, it has to come from him”, she explains to Nurse May.

He has Decca, the eldest child, sent away to boarding school, so say at her mother's wishes. He suspects that she might not be his child and was punishing his wife, causing great pain to all of them.

Nurse May tries to befriend Mrs England. Ruby had a father with mental problems; he committed a crime which had long-lasting repercussions, the reason she has to stay for her family. She can empathise with Lilian.


“..education was like a gate, or a bridge leading from one bank to another.”

— Stacey Halls

The Norland Institute

Sims, the principal of the Norland Institute, is in the background all the time, supporting Nurse May. Norland Nurses are respected, have a distinguished and well-recognised uniform and are taught to show good discipline but with kindness;

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“..education was like a gate, or a bridge leading from one bank to another.”

The agency believes that “Children’s lives are uppermost”, which is why Ruby is so against Decca going to boarding school where she is miserable. She also believes she has to protect them herself when the father takes them out of the house and down to the river.

Nurse May is a good carer and teacher, which is how she eventually becomes the new principal of the institute when Sims retires.


Ruby's Relationships

She is naïve, not aware of the ways of the world before all this, so doesn’t know how to react to men and feels uncomfortable in their company.

It seems she is attracted to Mr Booth, the son’s tutor. Booth and Ruby have a mutual regard and friendship, with overtones, though he and Blaise, also an employee of the family, seem happy in their marriage. Did he marry Blaise because of the baby? There is a sense of regret from both him and Nurse May when they say goodbye.

The ‘accident’ caused by Ruby’s father was based on a true event in Bristol. So here we have two fathers with mental problems. May’s father ends up in a mental asylum and Mr England meets his fate near his mill on a cold and stormy night.


Summary

The story portrays how society was in the Edwardian era. Women were inferior, men ruled, and strong women were frowned upon, derided. I think that’s why Lilian wants to go to Australia, apart from needing a fresh start. Again invited to go with her employer, Nurse May doesn’t, due to her family commitments and, as mentioned, goes on to run the Norland Agency.

With unexpected generosity, Lilian expresses her gratitude to Ruby for standing by her.

There are wonderful descriptions of nature, good depth of characters and a strong plot, though the pace was a little slow to begin with. I was at first confused by the character of Mr England, but I assume we were supposed to be.

Historical treatment regarding family relationships, the oppression of women and social ‘niches’ is explored on several levels and well portrayed.

All in all, an entertaining novel worth picking up and difficult to put down.


Read, read, read!

Part of my Bookshelf

Part of my Bookshelf

© 2022 Ann Carr

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