Tilly Harper leaves the Lake District behind to begin a new job in London as an assistant housemother at Violet House, one of the many homes for Watercress and Flower Girls which were established by Albert Shaw to help young girls with disabilities in the 19th century.
When Tilly arrives at Violet House, she discovers a memento box hidden away in her wardrobe and is immediately intrigued by the diary recounting the story of Florrie, a young Irish girl, who was a flower seller in the 1870s. Florrie sold flowers to keep herself and her little sister, Rosie, out of the workhouse after the death of their parents, but young girls are easy prey on the dangerous London streets and they are soon separated. While Florrie searches desperately for her sister, she is found by Albert Shaw who takes her to one of his orphanages where she remains until she is old enough to be trained in the art of flower making. However, Florrie is forever haunted by the loss of her sister, and will not rest until she has been found.
Aware Florrie’s spirit is still present in the house, Tilly is determined to find out what happened to Rosie so Florrie can rest in peace, however she soon finds herself caught up in an intriguing mystery that leads back to her own childhood. Tilly, estranged from her own sister after a terrible accident, is forced into a process of self-examination that will either heal her or destroy her completely.
A Memory of Violets is inspired by the true story of a young Victorian silversmith called John Groom who was so struck by the plight of the many disabled girls selling flowers on the streets of London, he established the Watercress and Flower Girls’ Christian Mission in 1866. Initially, the purpose of the mission was to feed and clothe the girls, but Groom wanted to train them to become independent and hit on the idea of manufacturing artificial flowers which were just becoming fashionable. With the help of his patron, the Earl of Shaftesbury, Groom converted the mission into a factory where the girls became highly skilled at flower making. The older girls lived in a series of homes, all named after flowers, which were run by housemothers, while the younger girls were sent to an orphanage in Clacton-on-Sea, Essex. With the help of exhibitions, the flower girls fame soon spread and they were asked to provide thousands of silk roses for the first Queen Alexandra Rose Day in 1912.
Although A Memory of Violets doesn’t focus solely on the founding of the Flower Houses, it nevertheless forms an important backdrop and quite a unique one which had me searching for more information on the work carried out by John Groom. In the book, Gaynor paints a very idealistic picture of the homes where everyone lives in harmony with each other, with the only anxiety being caused by the declining health of their founder, Albert Shaw, the John Groom character. The writing is often guilty of being overly sentimental at some points, but the story is so heartwarming, it is easy to overlook.
The story is narrated alternately between Florrie in the late 1800s and Tilly in 1912, with the odd chapter revealing the fate of Florrie’s sister, Rosie. Much of the story is also told through Florrie’s diary, although the entries concentrate predominantly on her life after she is rescued by Shaw and has learned to write. The descriptions of the poverty in London, particularly the stench, is very evocative and contrasts powerfully with the sweet smells of the flowers. The sense of smell has a very important role in this story, mainly in provoking emotional responses to memories, and as a signature scent. Certain characters are identified by smells more readily than others and when Tilly is feeling Florrie’s presence in her bedroom, she is overwhelmed by a strong scent of violets which she comes to associate with Florrie, however there is a twist waiting to be revealed here.
The plot lies heavily on coincidences and much of it seems implausible but as Tilly’s father is often quoted as saying, everything happens for a reason. Tilly’s past is tied strongly to the Flower Houses, in ways she could never have imagined, but Gaynor signposts so much along the way, none of the revelations come as a surprise. There is also a touch of romance as an unsuspecting Tilly finds her true love in the shape of Shaw’s nephew, and a dash of the supernatural as she is visited from the beyond.
While A Memory of Violets is a sweet story, the Flower Houses are the most interesting part of it and I can’t help wishing it had formed the sole focus rather than jumping ahead to Tilly’s story.