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by Stacey Halls
Mira, April 2022
320 pages
ISBN: 0778386317

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

Despite its unprepossessing title (surely author Stacey Halls could have thought of something more intriguing!) MRS. ENGLAND is a pleasant, often captivating read. Perhaps the title is intended to evoke shades of Jane Eyre. There are many parallels to that novel (and to The Turn of the Screw); Halls is continuing in the noble tradition of mysteries set in remote English houses, with isolated female protagonists in charge of children. Does this make the novel derivative? Perhaps a little, but fans of those books will certainly enjoy this one.

From a rather slow beginning, the story builds, initially in fits and starts, but ultimately with considerable suspense and momentum, to a breathtaking crescendo. Stacey's gentle pace and evocative descriptions early in the book almost lull the reader into thinking this will be just a pleasant tale of life as a children's nurse during the Edwardian era. It is, in fact, such a tale, but there is sufficient foreboding and mystery to keep one turning the pages.

At the start, Nurse (Ruby) May is happily ensconced with a London family, responsible for a single baby, but when the family decides to move to America, Nurse May inexplicably refuses to accompany them. Instead, she applies for a new position, via the institute where she trained, and heads to Yorkshire. In an old house on the moors, she becomes nurse to four young children, serving a peculiarly distant and uncommunicative mistress, Mrs. England, and her charming ebullient husband. Nurse May is stupefied by the arrangement, accustomed as she is to receiving directives from the woman of the house; here she is told to discuss all matters relating to the children with Mr. England. This peculiar arrangement is unsettling for protagonist and reader alike.

Halls' depiction of the life of a children's nurse is fascinating; most 21st century readers have likely never heard of such a position. May is solely responsible for all aspects of the children's lives. She totally rules the third floor nursery (which includes playrooms and bedrooms), setting the children's schedule: bedtimes, diet, and activities. She does laundry and mending. Rarely does she consult with the parents, to whom she presents her wards for only one hour each day; this seems entirely the norm.

May faces many challenges, including receiving cold shoulders from the other servants (of whom there are an insufficient number, in May's opinion) and of course the total lack of input or apparent interest on the part of Mrs. England. May lives an isolated life and longs for her siblings, although not her father. Some dark past event related to him haunts her. She especially misses her sister, to whom she frequently writes. When she receives no responses, and eventually discovers her post has been withheld (along with other odd developments), she becomes suspicious about her situation. And then the plot quickly thickens, twists and turns, and is replete with shocks and surprises.

While suspenseful and exciting, MRS. ENGLAND is never gruesome. For many this will make the novel a welcome relief from the violence and horrors of contemporary thrillers. The book's momentum meanders somewhat, and is entirely lost after the climax, when the story simply dwindles away (though quite quickly). Due to this inconsistency in the writing, MRS. ENGLAND can hardly be called a great novel. However, it is atmospheric and intriguing and always an easy read.

Meg Westley is a writer and retired educator living in Stratford, Ontario.

Reviewed by Meg Westley, March 2022

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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