by Stacey Halls
‘…. Mr England was in high spirits. He’d played two songs on the upright piano and now sat on the stool smoking. Cigar cuttings littered the carpet. His mood was infectious; the children cheered and ran about, and Charley clapped on the rug.’
Stacey Halls’s first novel The Familiars was one of my favourite reads of 2019. Mrs England is her third – (for some reason, I missed her second). Set in 1904, the story is narrated by Ruby May, a children’s nurse recently graduated from the prestigious Norland Institute. Unwilling to follow her current employer to the USA, Ruby is offered another post with the Englands, a family who own cotton mills in Yorkshire. The Englands have four children, Saul, Decca, Millie and the baby Charley. Mr England is friendly and welcoming, and encourages Ruby to look to him for instructions and advice, rather than to his wife. Neither a member of the family nor truly a servant, Ruby comes over as a bit naive and maybe just a tad superior. The usual servants, ie cook and maids etc, seem to think so anyway at first. Other members of the community are more friendly – for example the tutor, Mr Booth, the blacksmith, Mr Sheldrake and a reporter for the local paper, Mr Shawcross. Of course, they are men, and Ruby is a young, attractive and unattached woman.
Typical of their class and time, the Englands employ a tutor for Saul, while Decca and Millie – being girls – are denied a proper education. It soon becomes clear to Ruby that there is a mystery surrounding Mrs England. She isn’t precisely the ‘woman in the attic‘ of Charlotte Bronte’s classic, however she has peculiar mood swings, is luke warm towards her children, is prone to accidents and to wandering about the house, and apparently has to be locked in her room at night. Mind you, Ruby isn’t too forthcoming about her own family situation, and we deduce there is something of a mystery there too.
‘The doctor stabbed the syringe into Saul’s neck, making a sickening puncture sound that silenced us all at once. Saul choked, then gasped noiselessly as Dr Powell eased down the barrel, his eyes bulging at the ceiling. My head swam, and I reached for the wardrobe to steady myself.’
The other great house in the district is the luxurious mansion of the Greatrex family, Mrs England’s parents, rich, influential and in the wool business, like the Englands major employers of the village people. They seem to hate their daughter, and she certainly hates them. When Ruby is taken with the children to meet them, they dismiss her as someone of no consequence. Saul takes ill with asthma. Ruby prescribes treatment and defies the Greatrexes and their superior physician when he countermands her instructions. Her obstinacy, a dismissal offence in some families, seems to earn her points, at least with Mrs England, and she is rewarded with a tacit reprieve.
Gradually, Mrs England’s character and behaviour take centre stage. Against all expectation, Decca is sent to boarding school – which she hates. At the same time Ruby drip feeds us with snippets from her home life, about her disabled sister Elsie and her greengrocer parents, although always drawing short of telling us what we really want to know. Things go missing, including letters, and there are accidents.
‘Charley coughed. I was facing the wall and opened my eyes, aware, now, of a sulphuric smell, like a gas pipe left on….. I hurried through to the main house. On the landing, the stench of sulphur hit me square in the face.’
This is a novel which creates psychological tension in descriptions of the ordinary. But the ordinary can be deceptive – and devious. As in Emily Bronte’s novel, we are plunged here into the raw beauty of the Yorkshire countryside with its wild rivers, hills and treacherous crags. A way of life in 1904, the dark satanic mills of the England and Greatrex families viewed with twenty-first century eyes seem threatening and dangerous.
‘Somehow I had grabbed hold of the parapet. Before I fell, I’d been clutching the painted rail, and my right hand reached out instinctively. That would have saved me if it had been an accident ….’
Yet childhood can be as dangerous a time as any, and people can be deceptive and devious too, even story narrators. In Mrs England, the reader must decide which characters to take at face value and which are not what they seem to be. I can only say that I got it quite wrong and that the conclusion was quite unexpected. Suffice to say, it is neither the romantic convenience of Jane Eyre nor the peaceful tragedy of Wuthering Heights.
‘My feet moved by themselves towards them, and with all my strength I brought the hairbrush down, glinting and flashing like a blade of moonlight. There was a sickening crunch, followed by a second or two of pure silence.’
Mrs England is a piece of excellent storytelling and a breeze to read in a couple of sittings. Maybe three if you’re a slow reader!