Book Reviews

Mrs England by Stacey Halls — a touch of Gothic

Cover of Mrs England by Stacey Halls, a novel about secrets in a large house close to the Yorkshire moors

There was a tremendous buzz about Mrs England when it was published in 2021. Almost very bookshop I visited had a display of the book alongside Stacey Halls’ previous two novels, The Familiars and The Foundling (both best sellers).

I wouldn’t have bought Mrs England personally thinking (mistakenly as it turned out) that it was just a Gothic mystery story, but I ended up with a copy anyway — a birthday gift from my mother.

It turned out to be more enjoyable than I expected. A Gothic mystery wrapped around a tale of power and coercion within the confines of an apparently respectable marriage.

Mrs England starts in dramatic, enigmatic fashion. It’s night time and a lone woman is climbing up onto wild moorland. Who is she? Why has she locked children into a nursery? Who is the master of whom she seems so afraid? Questions that are answered only in the final chapter.

A House Of Secrets

In the middle is a mystery set in a large Edwardian house in Yorkshire where the new nanny, Ruby May, realises there is something odd about her employers, Charles England and his wife.

Mrs England plays no part in the running of the household — she leaves her husband to give directions to the staff. never visits the nursery to see her four children or play with them. She spends most of her day in her room. When she does put in an appearance she is dressed immaculately but seems distracted and dazed.

Mr England explains his wife’s strange behaviour as the result of her fragile health which causes her to be forgetful. He hints she could even be a danger to herself or the children. As the weeks pass, Nurse May comes to question the truth of that description. Hardcastle House it transpires is a house of many secrets.

It’s a wonderfully atmospheric and tense novel that deploys many of the tropes of the Gothic tale. We’re treated to hidden letters, a secret identity and a fire for example. But. we also find a few twists to the standard formula.

Re-inventing The Gothic

Hardcastle House for example isn’t the haunted building that you come across in many Gothic novels. It more like a mausoleum with a “murky, underwater atmosphere” and musty odour”. In a valley surrounded by moorland, it feels menacing and remote, cut off from the world.

It doesn’t have secret rooms or underground passages in which kidnappers, ferocious dogs or ghosts may lurk. Gloomy, isolated houses I can handle in fiction but give me a hint of a ghost or anything that goes bump in the night and I immediately lose all interest in the book. Mercifully Mrs England was devoid of any supernatural element. Instead we learn that Mr England locks his wife into her bedroom every night. For her safety? Or to protect the rest of the inhabitants?

In Charles England, we find get the archetypal brooding hero whose charming exterior masks his forcefulness. Yet Ruby May is no naive young heroine like Catherine Morland. Ruby is a determined young woman who has fought her way from a broken home to train as a nanny with the prestigious Norland Institute. She questions everything she sees and everything she is told.

Mrs England kept me intrigued and I loved the open ended way in which it ended. Though it does deal with social issues of class and attitudes towards women, it’s not weighed down by them. Most likely not the kind of book that will stay in my memory for years to come but it was definitely an entertaining read that was perfect on those heatwave days we had in the UK when it was too hot to do anything but lounge in the shade in the garden..

Mrs England by Stacey Halls: Footnotes

Stacey Halls left her native Lancashire after completing a journalism degree. She went on to work for a series of publications including The Guardian, the Independent and Fabulous (the weekend magazine for The Sun newspaper) . Having interviewed and reviewed multiple authors she decided to try writing fiction herself.

Her first book, The Familiars was inspired by the 17th-century Pendle witch trials. It was the bestselling debut hardback novel of 2019, won a Betty Trask Award and was shortlisted for Debut Book of the Year at the British Book Award. Her second novel, The Foundling — a story set around Georgian London’s Foundling Hospital — was also a bestseller.

Stacey shares insight about her writing life in this interview and talks about the inspiration for Mrs England in this article for the Norland Institute


What do you need to know about me? 1. I'm from Wales which is one of the countries in the UK and must never be confused with England. 2. My life has always revolved around the written and spoken word. I worked as a journalist for nine years then in international corporate communications 3. My tastes in books are eclectic. I love realism and hate science fiction and science fantasy. 4. I am trying to broaden my reading horizons geographically by reading more books in translation

29 thoughts on “Mrs England by Stacey Halls — a touch of Gothic

  • Halls is a good speaker – very knowledgeable and engaged with readers. We had an in-person event with her pre-COVID (for The Familiars) and she went down very well with the audience, including some members of a couple of local book groups. I’m glad you enjoyed this latest novel, Karen, as it she seems to be going from strength to strength.

    • I’ll look out for any events involving her on that basis. Not all authors are comfortable with an audience are they – some I’ve come across really struggled. One who was on a panel at Hay was so taciturn, you could see the chair of the discussion desperately looking to the other members to give him a hand

  • Anne Hercock

    Thanks for this. Reserved it on Borrowbox. Not available immediately which is good as I have a number of your other recommendations in my tbr pile! Thank you again.

    • Though I read this on a hot summer day it would also be perfect for a winter’s afternoon in front of the fire

  • I really enjoyed this, so I’m pleased you liked it, especially as you weren’t initially drawn to it. Although it does have some dark and atmospheric elements, it’s more than just a simple Gothic novel. I’ve read Stacey Halls’ other two books and they’re both good as well, particularly The Foundling.

  • What you’ve described does read like a ‘gothic’ novel. I like gothic but currently, I am swamped with books to be read; and I can’t read them fast enough, I am sad to say. I will keep it in mind, for if ever I have downtime in reading, I like the cover image as well. Thank you for sharing.

    • It’s at the lower end of the Gothic spectrum.
      I share your problem – my ability to acquire books far exceeds my ability to read them

  • Another temptation, from an author whose acquaintance I’ve yet to make. Sounds insidiously unputdownnable!

    • It’s not high blown fiction but very readable Chris.

  • I enjoy a good gothic tale from time to time. Just finished O Caledonia. Have you read it? This one sounds promising. What a nice mum.

    • I’ve not heard of that Guy – just looked it up and those covers are rather spooky

  • I enjoyed The Familiars some years ago. I do wonder how writers like Halls can immerse themselves in so many different eras of history – a new one every book. It seems exhausting to me!

    • It does require extensive research for sure – some of the authors love that part of it more than the writing I suspect!

        • So true – too many novels are spoiled by authors who feel they have done the research and now need us to understand it all

  • I also liked this a lot more than I expected – I usually avoid historical novels with flowery covers so I’m not sure why I even picked it up!

    • I think the cover might have had an influence on me too Laura. It looked a little twee

      • I’ve been very interested in gobbling up gothic literature, lately. This sounds like something I should check out

        • If you like novels with a not too obvious Gothic element then this would be very entertaining

  • This was one of those books I added to my TBR when it came out, but never got around to reading, and then eventually forgot about. Thanks for jogging my memory!

    • Ah yes I know how that happens all too well. It’s strange isn’t it – I get so excited about buying a book but clearly not excited enough to want to read it soon. and then totally forget I have it

    • I might now read The Foundling – that background is more to my taste than witchcraft trials

  • Sounds good, especially the fact that it doesn’t go down the obvious route with lots of creepy ghostly stuff!

  • I have difficulties to read books were people are so restraint by conventions that they rather face doom then to escape their social corset. The nanny, being the main protagonist, apparently being the so called only exception on the rule.

    • There is more to this than just being confined by class – but I can’t say what it is because it would spoil the book for other readers


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