Published: 29 September 2011
Genre: Historical Fiction
Above stairs, Lord Netherwood keeps his considerable fortune ticking over with the profits from his three coal mines in the vicinity. It's just as well the coal is of the highest quality, as the upkeep of Netherwood Hall, his splendid estate on the outskirts of town, does not come cheap. And that's not to mention the cost of keeping his wife and daughters in the latest fashions—and keeping the heir, the charming but feckless Tobias, out of trouble.
Below stairs, Eve Williams is the wife of one of Lord Netherwood's most stalwart employees. When her ordered existence amid the terraced rows of the miners' houses is brought crashing down by the twin arrivals of tragedy and charity, Eve must look to her own self-sufficiency, and talent, to provide for her three young children. And it's then that "upstairs" and "downstairs" collide in truly dramatic fashion.
Eve’s life changes forever when she loses her husband in a mining accident and faces the prospect of raising her children alone. Eve is encouraged to start selling her delicious pies from home as a way of paying rent and soon becomes so successful, she comes to the attention of Lord Hoyland who invests in her business. Before long, Eve is baking her pies for the cream of London society, although she longs to return to her children in Yorkshire.
It was the lower class characters who really drew me to the book as they struggled with daily hardships with dignity and humour, especially the women who have to be strong to keep their families together in the face of adversity. Eve’s business goes from strength to strength despite her impoverished background and one can only imagine how the locals can afford to pay for all those pies they are eating. Lord Hoyland seems to have no qualms about encouraging Eve to run her business, a courtesy he won’t even extend to his own daughter, Henrietta, who would make a more worthy heir than her brother, Tobias.
Although the book captures the ambience of the era, it doesn’t go into great depth so the pace is quite gentle, making it an easy read, and there were occasions when I felt the author could have explored more of the hardships faced by the lower classes. As the book progressed, the different viewpoints did start to get on my nerves because some of the characters seemed to offer nothing to the events unfolding. I never really mustered much enthusiasm for Lord Hoyland’s useless family, apart from Henrietta, who may have had everything she wanted in material terms but was struggling to break down her class’s gender stereotypes. The rest of the family were never really fleshed out with the two younger children virtually being ignored.
Netherwood is currently being pushed towards fans of Downton Abbey which is canny on the part of the publisher since it is set in the same era and has similar soap-style elements. I am a fan of Downton Abbey but that is neither here nor there as I would have read the story regardless of that association. What appealed to me most about this story was the setting in the coal mines as I have a large number of miners in my family tree, although from Durham rather than Yorkshire. Being slightly claustrophobic, the idea of working deep down in a mine shaft fills me with absolute terror so I have nothing but respect for these hardworking men. Sanderson does a great job of describing life in the collieries, and although New Mill is safer than most, the larger social picture is never ignored as working conditions come under the scrutiny of the fledging unions.