When Mary’s mother dies, Mary assumes all the responsibilities of keeping their poor, rural household together and caring for her younger siblings. It is a hard life, but Mary loves her brothers and especially her baby sister. When her father remarries, her mean-spirited stepmother sends her away to work at her sister’s inn. While at the inn, Mary meets a young, upper class mother who has no idea what to do with her baby. They hire Mary for the journey to London and give her a place in their house as a scullery maid. Mary falls in love with a young boy from the regiment nearby and well, you can guess the rest.
Told from the perspective of four of the main characters and slipping in and out of past and present, Jocelyn uses this Dickensian story of a young woman at the mercy of her time to describe aspects of Victorian London (I love Victorian London- it is so delightfully contrapuntal). Descriptions of the upper crust Victorian houses, as well as the fear of the workhouse and an in-depth glimpse into the foundling hospital give this short novel a lot of flavour.
Jocelyn also brings the character of Mary alive by writing her character in first person, with a dialect I can only guess would be close to what the rural poor would be speaking at the time. Eliza, the bitter, jealous maid is less crafted, if not perhaps more interesting. Her story is full of Downton Abbey-esque machinations. Oliver, the former foundling turned history teacher is kind, if a little benign, and the little foundling James rambunctious.
Having said all that, I can’t help feeling that the novel fell a little short. The plot is typically Victorian – the tale of a fallen woman at the mercy of the rigid morality of the time. The happy ending is as predictable as it is unbelievable (yes- the two can coincide. Predicatble in its incredibleness.) The link between the characters is guessed at very soon in the book, making the reader wonder less what is going to happen and more how will it all come together.
Still, an enjoyable read and one I would not hesitate to recommend for the grade 7 historical fiction reading circle.