Also published on this date: Shelf Awareness for Wednesday, January 19, 2022

Wednesday, January 19, 2022: Maximum Shelf: Mrs. England

Mira Books: Mrs. England by Stacey Halls

Mira Books: Mrs. England by Stacey Halls

Mira Books: Mrs. England by Stacey Halls

Mira Books: Mrs. England by Stacey Halls

Mrs. England

by Stacey Halls

Mrs. England, set in 1904 West Yorkshire, offers slow-burn thrills and chills as one young woman gradually gets the creeping feeling something is amiss in the house she cannot leave. In this revamp of the classic Victorian governess story, Stacey Halls (The Familiars; The Foundling) provides a gothic-infused historical drama with a contemporary twist.

After resigning from her nursing post when her employer moves to America, Ruby May is on thin ice with her mentor, Miss Simpson. Sim, the principal at the Norland Institute, where all great nurses are trained, warns Ruby that three failed assignments means the end of her affiliation with the program. Ruby, who narrates the novel, is then sent off to her new position, caring for the England family children. The Englands, from what Ruby can tell, are a powerful family, inheritors of a mill fortune, who live in a beautiful but austere country home with their four kind and precocious children--two boys and two girls. Ruby is determined not to fail them.

But all is not what it seems in the England household. Mrs. England is cold and distant, the other house staff are distrusting and jaded, and Mr. England is uncommonly friendly and insists on being involved in everything Ruby does. As Ruby becomes closer to her wards, she grows determined to protect them from the danger she senses lurking in every corner of the house. And because Ruby feels increasingly isolated in her liminal role in the household, she cannot stop thinking about the traumas from her own past that brought her to this house--traumas that help her begin to see Mrs. England's strange behavior in a new light.

Halls is no stranger to richly atmospheric settings and pitch-perfect period details. As in her other two novels, she captures an elusive sense of a place and time without obscuring it with too much nostalgia or glamour: "The strange hissing noise continued, and as my eyes accustomed to the darkness I could make out the blue-black sky, with a clouded moon... among the dampness was a distinct smell, a green smell... cold and fresh as spring water, entirely unlike the heavy smoke and dust I was used to... the noise was a river, growing louder now, as though we had disturbed it."

The setting is refreshingly rich and lived-in, and the characters are vital, complex and imperfect. While the narrative stays focused on Ruby's constrained position in the England house, Halls still manages to depict the intricate social connections among the household and surrounding areas. She populates the tale with expertly crafted characters who, though minor, leave a lasting impact on readers through their inability to be easily pinned down. What's more, this setting is rife with all the underlying class tensions, competing motives and unexpected intimacies of a small community with a shared past and uncertain future.

Unanticipated as well as unwanted intimacy is, ultimately, what defines Ruby's story, both in terms of her job and her simultaneously inescapable and pragmatic impulse toward empathy. Hardworking and intelligent, clear-eyed and morally centered, Ruby appears to be a person unlikely to ever have her certainty swayed. And yet, time and time again, it is Ruby's dedication to care, her emotional attachment to others and her intuitive nature that entrap her in interpersonal battles over power and control. By revisiting the role of the nurse in the Victorian household at the turn of the century, Halls casts new light on the tense and unusual situation such women found themselves in: both part of and separate from a family, intimate with and yet separate from the children they come to love as their own.

Central to the novel's growing tension is Halls's skill in implying danger while never allowing Ruby to look it in the face: " 'Oh, and one more thing,' [Mr. England] said, continuing to cut up his food. 'Please lock the nursery at night.' " The sense that something is lurking behind every corner is inescapable in Mrs. England, even as readers come to suspect the source of the household's uneasiness. As Ruby traverses labyrinthine hallways, stormy moors and candle-lit nurseries, readers are inevitably drawn in, like Ruby, to the house's mysteries, despite the simultaneous impulse to run. Both interpersonal and economic forces constrain Ruby to this haunted house, making her inability to escape--unlike more contrived girl-trapped-in-a-house tales--even more pointed and affecting.

But at the heart of the novel's suspense is the secret that Ruby herself holds, a secret that begins to psychologically resurface in the context of her entrapment. Never giving into the familiar gimmick of casting Ruby as an unreliable narrator, Halls instead paints her traumatic past as part of the larger context for her decisions, her fears and her desires. Halls's inventive use of tropes, atmospheric writing and deftness with characters conveys, better than most, how true evil or danger is not so easily pinned down to a single source but exists as a complex and diffuse result of the world in which her heroine lives. --Alice Martin

Mira Books, $27.99, hardcover, 320p., 9780778386315, April 2022

Mira Books: Mrs. England by Stacey Halls

Stacey Halls: The Monster in the House

(photo: Ollie Grove)

Stacey Halls is a journalist and bestselling novelist who grew up in Lancashire, England. No stranger to historical fiction and atmospheric country homes, her previous novels, The Familiars and The Foundling, explore the tense and often fraught roles of women in relation to power in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries in Britain. Mrs. England, her third novel, will be published in the U.S. by Mira on April 12, 2022.

What initially sparked the idea for Mrs. England?

Two things: the setting of Hardcastle Crags in the Calder Valley of West Yorkshire, and coercive control. The former is a place very dear to me: an unusual, peaceful yet dramatic landscape of moors and crags and rivers and woods, with a 19th-century mill at the heart of it and heaps of atmosphere. And coercive control had been rattling around in my head ever since it was made a criminal offence in the U.K. in 2015; the definition is "controlling or coercive behavior in an intimate or family relationship." It interested me that behavior that has been prevalent since the beginning of time has now been classified and recognized, and I wanted to write something that explored it before anyone had that awareness.

What made Ruby the character you wanted to explore in this new novel?

I thought the position of a nanny, or a children's nurse as they were called in 1904, was a uniquely interesting one. It's neither servant nor family member, occupying the sometimes awkward space in between. Nursing would have been a thankless, friendless job, with none of the camaraderie or hierarchy of "downstairs"; Norland nurses were not permitted to eat with or mix with the servants. Along with the access they had to the master and mistress, who didn't really know anything about them, though they were with their children 24/7, it's a position ripe with tension.

What were you interested to learn more about while researching Mrs. England?

I found myself poring over anything I could find about Norland nurses. The college was the first of its kind to give women a qualification for childcare. It was founded in Kensington in the 1890s by a businesswoman called Emily Ward and was (and still is) the crème de la crème of childcare. The royal family and mega-rich employ them, Mary Poppins was based on one, and they are distinguished by their iconic uniforms. Nurses and nannies are common in literature, particularly children's and Victorian, but always fade into the background; sometimes they're even nameless. I wanted to make a heroine of one.

This is such an atmospheric book, as well as quite haunting. How did you approach crafting the slow-burning tension in the novel and what inspired its creepier elements?

Thank you! It took a lot of redrafting, because I haven't written anything slow-burning before. I had to balance the plot with pace and mystery and tension, so it took several attempts and lots of character work. Mrs. England is the least plot-driven of my novels, so I knew I had to keep people reading when the characters aren't racing around trying to find things out or escaping from villains. There had to be that element of "the monster in the house," though Ruby isn't sure who the monster is, if there is one at all. I wanted to create this sense of the ground constantly shifting beneath her, which is a term victims of control use. As well, she has a secret of her own that could destroy her if it's revealed, so the drip-feeding of that is a parallel mystery.

What made characters like Mr. Booth and Sim seem essential to you in writing Ruby's story?

I thought it was important to have someone who brings Ruby out of herself and challenges her morality. Mr. Booth is engaged to Blaise, the housemaid, and if he hadn't been, she might have allowed herself to fall in love with him, but she wants to do what's right. I'd always planned to have them share a kiss, and wrote it into the first draft, but it didn't seem right: once I knew Ruby properly, it was clear to me she just wouldn't do it. I like being surprised by my characters in that way; they do take on a life and will of their own. Sim--Norland's principal, Miss Simpson--is Ruby's idol, and represents everything that is good and neat and safe. I feel like all supporting characters must act as mirrors held up to the main characters, to an extent; they are the only way we see the protagonists interacting and reacting, which shows us who they are, so they must be created with that in mind.

What was your biggest obstacle in writing Mrs. England?

Oh, where do I start? I think the fact that I finished the first draft at the start of the pandemic helped. But when it came to writing drafts two, three and four and working on the edits, I was locked up in my garret like the rest of the world. I always find the second draft more difficult and time-consuming than the first, because that's when you really have to figure out what the book is and what you're trying to do with it. The first draft is sort of a dress rehearsal, for me anyway. And though my day-to-day life didn't change much as I work from home, I've found the events of the last 18 months hugely impactful on my work. My concentration went out the window, my creativity down the drain. I've spent most of this year in a sort of apathetic procrastination. I suspect I'm not alone in that.

What other books, authors, or sources did you turn to while you were writing?

I read lots of Daphne Du Maurier to try and work out how she does slow-burning menace, because she is the master of it. If I could only read one author for the rest of my life, it would be her. I watched the 1940 film Gaslight and read books and watched documentaries on domestic abuse and coercive control. I also took a course on domestic violence called the Freedom Programme, which helps victims and individuals identify types of abuse. That was quite frightening, because you can see how it starts small and escalates gradually into this situation that you just feel entirely powerless in, where you start to think you're the problem. In Mrs. England, Ruby starts to conflate the Englands' behavior with something that happened in her own past: she can't see straight. There's a common misconception that victims of abuse understand or ought to understand what is happening to them.

Are you working on any other projects?

I've begun writing my fourth book, which is set in the mid-19th century and, like all my books, centers around a house and some women. This one is another fictional retelling of real events. That's all I'll say for now! --Alice Martin

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