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.
Distant and withdrawn, Lilian shows little interest in her children or charming husband, and is far from the ‘angel of the house’ Ruby was expecting. As the warm, vivacious Charles welcomes Ruby into the family, a series of strange events forces her to question everything she thought she knew. Ostracised by the servants and feeling increasingly uneasy, Ruby must face her demons in order to prevent history from repeating itself. After all, there’s no such thing as the perfect family – and she should know.
Simmering with slow-burning menace, Mrs Englandis a portrait of an Edwardian marriage, weaving an enthralling story of men and women, power and control, courage, truth and the very darkest deception. Set against the atmospheric West Yorkshire landscape, Stacey Halls’ third novel proves her one of the most exciting and compelling new storytellers of our times.
When children’s nurse Ruby May finds herself in need of serving a new family, she strikes gold with the England Family of four children in Yorkshire. When she arrives, she’s quickly smitten with the children and enthralled with the master of the house. However, the mistress of the house, Mrs England, is another matter altogether. With Mr England’s strict rules regarding his wife, and Mrs England’s apparent absent mindedness, Ruby is captivated by the ongoings of this dysfunctional marriage. As Ruby’s curiosity and caring responsibilities clash, and her own past traumas resurface, the tale of Mrs England promises to make us think twice about what we think we know about families and what goes on behind closed, locked doors.
Stacey Halls returns with her third novel, and in true Halls style, the story enveloped me with every chapter, and caused my mind to blaze with rife suspicion and dread. Just like The Familiars and The Foundling, Halls writing is cosily ensnaring and tugged back and forth at my heart. One minute it lulled me forward and pushed away, then pulled me in once more and pushed away again. It’s a story about devotion, power, family, harmony and survival.
The England’s family home and the time period was so well drawn I felt it vividly as if I’d travelled in time and was in the midst of it all. I felt the hollowness and coldness of the house, then on the other hand, I felt the love and care of Ruby attending to the children by indulging their childhood fancies of stories and hide and seek.
The characters were likeable and compelling, evoking warmth and sympathy or mistrust and anxiety throughout. My thoughts kept shifting on all of them – even our narrator Ruby – as Halls cast doubt at every door. I felt the building undercurrent of suspense throughout, as it becomes increasingly clear both Ruby and the England family has secrets that will upturn everything as the story builds toward a menacing end.
My only quibble is I wish the story went farther and delved deeper. I wish Ruby’s background had ran adjacent to the England family’s, or wasn’t left so close to the novel’s end, for it felt underserved and I ultimately desired more. However, it was enjoyable and tied in and contrasted well with the family’s story to provide such dimensions of adversity it made the climax devilishly ominous.
Mrs England feels enigmatic and oppressive yet utterly beguiling. It captures the serene landscape of wealth and family that is something idyllic, probably even enviable, but behind and underneath it all, there’s more than meets the eye and all is not as it seems. A thoroughly enjoyable piece of historical fiction I’m sure other Halls fans will adore too.
Thank you kindly to the publishers for providing me with an e-ARC in exchange for this honest review.