In 1850s Wales, orphaned Jane Evans’ life is hard, looking after five brothers and the farm animals. Her consolations are her Bible and her pigs. Ordered to marry an elderly, repulsive neighbour, she escapes to join the “drove”, walking livestock to the English markets.
In London, the head drover delivers her to a philanthropic couple who are bound for Miss Nightingale’s hospital in the Crimea. There, as an assistant nurse in the appalling conditions in Balaclava, Jane learns about the world and herself.
Using her research into the real Jane Evans, Purkis has created a three-dimensional character set in a three-dimensional background: rural Wales and the horrors of the Crimean hospitals are brought to colourful life.
The chapters on the drove are particularly fascinating: landscapes, weather, and rough conditions are vividly drawn. The Welsh countryside is so vividly described that later, in the Crimean scenes, we can appreciate Jane’s homesickness. When the drove reaches England, Jane’s dialogue takes on a Welsh cadence and syntax, as does that of the Welsh people she meets in the hospitals. This emphasises Jane’s working-class roots, as opposed to the English officers, doctors, and Miss Nightingale, who are “above” the nurses, who are “above” the assistant nurses. When Jane’s naivety leads her to misjudge an officer’s intentions, the results are shocking and realistic. Small details are telling. In a drought, Jane cannot wash blood from her hands. Clothes drenched in gore are never changed. English tourists arrive with luggage to watch a siege.
The flashbacks inserted into the narrative can be confusing, and if the ending is an anticlimax, real life often is, but these are minor complaints. Jane Evans is a gripping, rewarding read.