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.