What a classy cover! Don’t be judging a book by its cover, but even so… classy! I want to describe it as being in an art deco style but I’m not entirely sure what that term means…
Similarly classy is the pedigree of the author: Jessica Fellowes is a well renowned journalist and editor; she is niece to Julian, Lord Fellowes of Gosford Park and Downton Abbey fame; she has also written a number of books focused on Downton Abbey.
And the real Mitford sisters, who feature in the novel, are fascinating. Nancy Mitford is the only one who really becomes a character within the book but she is author of The Pursuit of Love and Love in a Cold Climate. And – and this is in my opinion delightful – intimately associated with the idea of “U and non-U” language which was a term coined by Alan Ross who used The Pursuit of Love for his examples of U (or upper class) language. When Nancy commented on it in her journalism, it was bound to her forever as she became the arbiter of class and language! In addition to Nancy, the sisters danced on the world stage, marrying nephews of Prime Ministers and aristocrats, some identified as fascists, pursuing a friendship with Hitler, others as socialists eloping to the Spanish Civil War and America. Poor Tom, the only brother, seems a little left out of the family!
Anyway, with the title of this book and that tag line “Six sisters, a lifetime of mystery…” I was expecting, perhaps, Mitfords as I opened the book.
Instead, I got Louisa Cannon, fatherless and daughter of a washerwoman, almost destitute and with some experience of petty theft and pickpocketry. We see her from the outset at the point of falling under the wheels of the social bus, with a helping shove from her sinister uncle Stephen who taught her how to pick pockets and was prepared to offer her to – to prostitute her to – others as payment for various debts he owed. He did come across as much more venal and dangerous than Fagin, and remained a shadow over Louisa throughout the book. Louisa – representing the underclasses perhaps, those forgotten post-war – rather than the Mitfords was our protagonist.
And that was probably a good thing: the Mitfords in the novel are all children and Nancy, approaching her eighteenth birthday by the end of the novel, is the only one given any character or development. Certainly when we first meet her, she felt somewhat precocious and self-absorbed whereas Louisa is much more engaging and human from the outset, not having had the cloistered and privileged upbringing of the eponymous sisters.
The novel is at its heart a detective novel and revolves around the death of Florence Nightingale Shore, another real historical character and historical and unsolved murder. Oddly, the same real murder that was featured over Christmas in The Truth of Murder, in which a fictionalised Agatha Christie went about solving it. Shore had been found beaten nearly to death on a train to Hastings; coincidentally, the same train onto which Louisa Cannon had been forced by her uncle to be taken to Hastings to “repay” some of his debts. Louisa had managed to escape – and met Guy Sullivan, a constable of the London, Brighton and South Coast Railway Police in doing so – but Shore did not. She slipped into a coma and died some days later in hospital.
Coincidences do abound in the story which perhaps strain credibility a little: Louisa and Florence Shore being on the same train; Louisa’s friend Jennie somehow being a friend of the Mitfords and able to help secure her a job there as a nanny; Florence Shore being a friend of Nanny Blor’s twin sister; both Roland, Nancy’s tentative love interest, and her father coming across Florence Shore as a nurse in Ypres in the War… but so be it. Both Louisa and Guy unofficially take an interest in the case even once it has been closed by Scotland Yard and the novel follows their investigations and, as they pass information between them, romance follows.
The usual paraphernalia of an investigation follow: inquests, interviews and evidence. Alongside that, we cover the paraphernalia of the upper class life: balls, romances, visits to France and London. Nancy Mitford initially felt like something out of a Famous Five story but she developed over the two year progress of the story into a far more empathetic and engaging figure, albeit one who never lost a childish sparkle; Louisa became more confident and more capable as her position became more secure, able to take control of her own destiny – and the investigation – independently. Guy, perhaps, had least development as a character remaining the optimistic and insecure young man, crippled by his own guilt at not having been able to serve in the war.
It was, as you’d expect, thoroughly researched and an authentic-sounding depiction of life in the Mitford household – Lord and Lady Redesdale’s household – with Louisa holding a strange position as an employee and servant and definitely “below stairs” in the eyes of Lord and Lady Redesdale, but having been claimed as a friend by Nancy and therefore more of an equal.
I also found it particularly familiar: having been brought up in Kent, I have taken the train journeys that were described on a regular basis. The distinction between the shady and sinister shadow of Hastings and the gentility of St Leonards did make me chuckle! My grandmother would probably have the same impressions!
In short, I did love this book. It was full of engaging characters – and I hope some of the minor characters recur in the second novel, Bright, Young, Dead. I did find the resolution of it all a little too optimistic for my tastes: without going into details, a whole-scale happy ending where the apprehension of the murderer came at no cost seemed a little too much. However, I will be diving into Bright, Young, Dead before too long.
Using a food analogy – and I often do at work: Diary of a Wimpy Kid is often likened to a packet of crisps, nothing wrong with them and pleasurable but not your sole diet, please; the classics might be more like a thick chewy steak! – this novel was, in writing, a Sunday Roast. Traditional, enjoyable, tasty, with lots of little treats in it, leaving you sated and sleepy afterwards!
Plot / Pace:⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
Date: 5th April 2018