Book Review – Mrs England by Stacey Halls

Pages: 419
Published: 10th June 2021
Genre: Historical Fiction
Trigger warnings: PTSD, attempted suicide

This was a buddy read with Noly, and we had such a wonderful time reading this book. Thank you so much to her for numerous great discussions.

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.

Ostracised by the servants and feeling increasingly uneasy, Ruby is forced 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 she should know.

This is a beautifully written story that leaves a true lasting impression by constructing a complex and quietly sinister historical mystery upon a hopeful, heartfelt foundation. The intrigue rarely goes away as characters are shown to be much more than what they appear on the surface, and secrets are expertly hidden amid the backdrop of an atmospheric setting that provokes intense curiosity.

There is a lot to speculate over as numerous plot strands are gradually added to the mix as well as events or lines of dialogue which cannot be taken at face value, and not a word is wasted in the process. Along with the compulsive need to untangle hidden clues, the fluidity of the narrative enables the reader to become thoroughly invested with little in the way of effort, and as such it is a difficult book to put down.

Having completed her training as a children’s nurse at a specialist institution in London, Ruby May is working for the Radlett family and enjoys minding their daughter, but her placement there comes to an end when she chooses not to accompany them as they emigrate to the United States. With a struggling family to support and no longer any source of income, she persuades her principal Miss Simpson to assign her to another family.

She accepts the chance to move up north to Yorkshire and become nurse to the four children of Charles and Lilian England at Hardcastle House. Much to her surprise, when she arrives Mr England is there to greet her in person and he is seen to take an unusually hands-on role in the running of household, while his wife seems to lack presence of mind or even a maternal instinct.

Ruby immediately befriends the children and is a dedicated and able guardian, but as the weeks go by she grows discomfited by the dynamics of the house. The confused and distant manner of Mrs England is in sharp contrast to Charles’ warmth and good humour, with Ruby also made to lock the nursery door every night. There is clearly something not quite right about the family, but she has no idea what.

The plot was fiendish in the sense that while it was easy to make assumptions about Mr and Mrs England’s relationship, it really keeps you guessing and is impossible to fully predict until it all falls into place towards the end. The questions and theories that arise about both characters are ever-changing, yet alongside that so much else takes place, enhancing the story and giving it several additional layers.

Nothing embodies this more than the character of Ruby herself. The book is written in the first person entirely from her point of view, and she goes from being merely a very likeable protagonist into one who has a genuinely meaningful context. The revelation that she is guarding a secret comes most unexpectedly and as we discover more it becomes more affecting, especially when the author’s note states she is based on a real person.

Either way, it is both delightful and fascinating to read through Ruby’s eyes. In her role as nurse to the children she is attentive and strikes a lovely rapport with them, especially Decca, the eldest. Her determination to understand what is truly going on between Mr and Mrs England is infectious, and made even more entertaining by the fact she is just as wrong-footed as the reader. At the same time, there is a lingering trauma living within her, and a sense that she needs to be loved.

Mr England makes an instant impression with his vibrant personality, which contrasts sharply with his wife’s pale existence. However, there is always the feeling that something dark lies beneath that exterior and as strange events begin to take place you start to seriously question what his motives might be, whereas Mrs England is surely much more together than she appears. Trying to unpick their relationship was one of the many joys of this book.

The children were so adorable and innocent, and it was particularly moving to see Ruby develop an emotional connection with Decca. Her interactions with the other household staff and the villagers such as Mr Boothe and Tommy Sheldrake were also fascinating, as they hint towards a side of Mr and Mrs England’s relationship that Ruby – and indeed the reader – is not privy to.

Family dynamics play a central role in the plot, as what we see of Mr and Mrs England is used to emphasise that appearances can be deceiving, with Ruby also battling her own difficult set of circumstances. The other main theme explored is social class, as Ruby emerges from her own troubled background to graduate as a nurse alongside much more affluent students. This leads to Miss Simpson becoming a kind of mentor, which I found heartwarming.

The issue of differing social backgrounds is at least partially evident in the settings, as the more rural location of Hardcastle House in Yorkshire is contrasted sharply with London, where the story begins. We see that it takes time for Ruby to adjust, and the dark, occasionally barren landscape adds to the atmosphere. As for Hardcastle House itself, the main source of tension is the question of why everyone has to be locked inside their bedrooms at night.

As always, there is a natural flow to Stacey Halls’ writing that makes it effortlessly engaging in a way that transports the reader into the story and makes you want to read on. It exudes a sense of warmth that shines through in Ruby’s likeable perspective, with neat turns of phrase and astute personification, allowing us to visualise each scene with great clarity.

Overall, there is everything to love about this book as it brings impeccable storytelling from the first page to the last. It contains moments of considerable emotion and meaning alongside a mystery that never disappoints, all through the eyes of a likeable and layered protagonist. An utterly absorbing read.

I absolutely loved this book. There was so much to enjoy and admire, and it gave me a lot to think about in terms of the mystery. You can always guarantee beautiful writing from Stacey Halls, and this time the story was similarly flawless.

My rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐


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