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.
Simmering with slow-burning menace, Mrs England is 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 landscape of West Yorkshire, Stacey Halls’ third novel proves her one of the most exciting and compelling new storytellers of our times.
When Ruby is offered the position of nanny for the England family, she feels she has to accept the post as Norland nannies don’t fail and this is already her second posting since her recent graduation. She can’t afford to fail again. Ruby arrives at the England home on the Yorkshire moors in the dead of night where the inky blackness lends the novel an immediate gothic feeling. Charles England, a wealthy mill owner, has hired a prestigious Norland nanny to care for his four children but Ruby’s suspicions are aroused when Charles warns her to keep the nursery door locked at night. The following day, Ruby is appalled by the rundown state of the nursery and the lack of rules so she immediately starts implementing changes which don’t endear her to the maids.
Ruby becomes increasingly intrigued by Lilian England who barely leaves her bedroom and doesn’t seem interested in her children. While Charles England comes across as a charming man, he frequently casts doubts over his wife’s mental health but when Ruby finally meets Lilian, she finds her new mistress articulate and intelligent. When Ruby encourages Lilian to spend more time with her children, a furious Charles admonishes Ruby for interfering and Ruby accepts he may be right about his wife’s instability when an incident almost leads to the house being burned down. While a confused Lilian appears to be guilty, Ruby’s instincts tell her everything is not as it seems and she can’t turn her back on Lilian.
Mrs England has definite Jane Eyre vibes with the mad women in the attic theme which is only enhanced with the remote Yorkshire setting, however it also undermines the overall plot because it becomes too predictable even in its complexity. There are a lot of changes of direction as Ruby seeks the truth and just as she thinks she has everything figured out, the rug is firmly pulled from under her feet and she is left doubting herself again. Ruby’s doubts are meant to undermine the reader’s belief they know what is going on but they ultimately don’t. Having said that, it is still an enjoyable read if you like gothic stories set in desolate houses.
Finally, Norland nannies are real and you may be familiar with their uniform if you have seen pictures of the nanny hired by the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge to care for their children. The Norland College in Bath was founded in October 1892 by Emily Ward who wanted to introduce a more structured system which focused on learning and development, as well as care. Only the rich could afford to hire a Norland nanny so it would have been seen as a sign of significant social standing if you had one in your household.