Mrs England by Stacey Halls: Brimming with mystery, suspense and secrets - book review -
Why does the enigmatic Mrs England rarely make an appearance, why must the nursery door be locked at night, and why are the servants so hostile? If she is to discover the truth behind the mysteries at Hardcastle House, Ruby will have to confront her own demons first.
Harnessing the dark, atmospheric charms of the Brontës, the chilling vibes of Daphne du Maurier, and the social and marital interplay so beloved by Henry James, Lancashire author Stacey Halls brings us one of her most exciting, addictive and ambitious novels yet.
Mrs England is the third historical novel from 33-year-old, Rossendale-born Halls who studied journalism at the University of Central Lancashire in Preston and has been flying high as an author since the publication of her stunning debut, The Familiars, which was set amidst the 17th century witch trials at Lancaster Castle.
And after a visit to Georgian London for her second novel, The Foundling, an emotional tale about motherhood, class, love and lies, Halls moves into the early years of the 20th century to bring us a searing, simmering and disturbing exploration of a marriage beset by power, control, menace and dark deception.
When Ruby May – the daughter of a Birmingham grocer – won a scholarship to train as a nanny at the famous Norland Institute, it opened up a career she might once never have imagined possible. But after two happy years working in London, Ruby has now been assigned to a family with four children in Yorkshire.
Charles and Lilian England are a wealthy couple from a powerful dynasty of mill owners and Ruby – herself the eldest of five children who often had to play ‘little mother’ to her siblings – hopes the move north will be the fresh start she needs.
But as she adapts to life at the isolated Hardcastle House, a place where the air is ‘cold and fresh as springwater’ and far away from the smoke and the dust of the city, it soon becomes clear there’s something not quite right about the beautiful, mysterious and distant Mrs England.
To Ruby, it’s a strange ‘upside-down world’ where the master has taken the place of the mistress. While Mr England, jovial and friendly, hands out orders about the children’s clothing and diets, his wife only visits the nursery on their birthdays, and drifts quietly about the house in her slippers as though she were ‘made of crepe.’
Ostracised by the other servants, ordered by Mr England to always lock the nursery door at night, and feeling increasingly lonely and uneasy, the nanny is forced to question everything she thought she knew after a series of strange events.
And Ruby has her own guilty secrets… she doesn’t want to take holidays, she has no desire to visit her family, and she doesn’t like free time because it allows space for her mind to ‘wander’ where she doesn’t want it to stray.
As events reach a dangerous climax in Hardcastle House, she will have 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 nobody knows that better than Ruby.
Mrs England is a visually breathtaking, richly detailed and exquisitely constructed portrait of the power play behind a troubled Edwardian marriage from an author whose gift to her readers is to stuff her stories with thrilling atmospherics, nuggets of real social history, and complex maternal and feminist insight.
Based on a real person, Ruby is the truly delightful star player – dedicated, brave, resilient and caring – as she works hard to transform the lives of the England children whilst struggling to understand the dark secrets that fester inside Hardcastle House.
In the slow-build plot, which blends a fascinating account of everyday life in a middle class household with an increasingly menacing mystery, tension reverberates through the very fabric of the cold, unwelcoming house which feels fatally enveloped in a ‘deep, shroud-like silence.’
And in grand literary style, the boulder-strewn moorland landscape wins best supporting role in this compelling, gothic experience… trees rise ‘like columns of smoke wearing mossy green jackets,’ dark gorges and silvery waterfalls litter the steep and creviced hillside, and the family’s mill crouches ‘like a secret’ at the bottom of the valley.
With its gripping depiction of early 20th century family life, a pitch perfect sense of time and place, a cast of superbly drawn characters who leap from the page, and a plot brimming with mystery, suspense and secrets, Mrs England delivers in spades the masterful storytelling that we have come to expect from this talented Lancashire author.
(Manilla Press, paperback, £8.99)