London 1904. Ruby May is a recently graduated “nanny” qualified from the prestigious Norland School for Nurses. Her first position is with The Radletts, a wealthy couple with an only child Georgina, and one on the way. When the couple decide to move to the United States of America for business reasons, Ruby has to refuse to follow them, with great regret to her and the Radletts.
Ruby accepts a new position in Yorkshire, where she is going to look after the four children of Lilian and Charles Englands, a wealthy couple from a powerful dynasty of mill owners. Here she experiences a peculiar lifestyle, strongly influenced by the setting and by the special nature of the people. The most interesting events turn around Mrs England, the mother. Apparently detached, absent and uninterested in what happens to her children, she lives in a world apart. On the other hand, Mr England appears as the most affectionate father and husband. However, beneath the surface, a different truth comes to light.
Life flows as expected at Hardcastle, Ruby is the ideal nanny and the children immediately “fall in love” with her. And yet…A black cloud is starting to spread its wings over the place and its inhabitants. Why? How? In which way is Ruby involved in that? Which secrets do the Englands hide?
“There were so many things I wanted to ask her – what Mr Sheldrake put in his letter; why her husband locked her in her room. Why she had such disdain for her entire family; why she was, as her mother put it, like lint swept into a corner, brittle and lonely. Why nobody came to the house; why she never left it.’”
Once again in english literature, Yorkshire is a main character of the story, with its wild nature, its dark athmosphere, its frigthning crags, its fascinating moors, its nature-driven inhabitants. Halls captures the reader with all these magic ingredients.
The relationship between husband and wife is often the battlefield where manipulation is the favourite weapon. Mrs England is well aware of that and decides to alert Ruby.
“Sympathy softened her face. ‘You can’t see it, can you? How he has you as his pet. Anything I told you he’d get out of you.’ ‘He wouldn’t.’ ‘Yes, he would.’ She gave a thin smile. ‘You don’t know how controlling he is. He’s doing it to you, too, keeping your letters and taking you under his wing. He makes you feel special and then he isolates you, he slowly suffocates you, so that you feel as though you have no one, that you’re all alone. I’ve put up with it too long now; I had to escape.’”
Ta-ra Ruby and good luck…
After the tragic events that upset both her marriage and her life Mrs England decides to leave Yorkshire and move to Australia. Once more Ruby refuses to leave the country. She has now some important decisions to make about her life. She cannot “escape” from them any longer. Charley the youngest child says goodbye to Ruby as Yorkshire people do:
“Charley watched with interest as he held out a hand. ‘Ta-ra, Ruby May. And good luck.’
Pandemic, lockdown and fiction
“This novel is dedicated to NHS workers. Thamk you for all you’ve done and continue to do” Stacey Halls
Confinement during Covid pandemic inspired a good number of writers all over the world, determining a sort of new dawn for “historical/medical fiction”. Forced isolation and a new attitude to life, sociality and time, provided the best conditions for talented writers to write successful novels, often based on pensiveness and questions about the meaning of life. In Mrs England Stacey Halls actually explores the inner feelings of two vastly different women that slowly learn to support each other, while odd events happen around them.
What I most appreciated in the novel is the author’s style. Straightforward and essential, the most suitable “voice” for Nurse Ruby May and her mission. In addition, as a non native reader, such peculiarity allowed me to throughly enjoy the story from the beginning to the end, without lexical hesitations or back-and-forward reading in search of the right meaning.
Reality and fiction: a genial encounter
Mrs England is a work of fiction, but the character of Ruby May is based on Ruby Browne and her family. All the tragic events which involved these people happend on the night of 18th September 1986.