Matrons and Madams

Written by Sharon Johnston
Review by Waheed Rabbani

In 1918 London, 30-year-old nurse Clara hears the long-awaited news: “The war is over!” Having lost her husband in the war, tears of joy and sorrow roll down her cheeks. But she is reconciled by her thought: “I still have my children.” However, when her six-year-old son dies in an influenza pandemic, her double loss is unbearable. With the help of a Canadian surgeon, Clara decides to accept a position as superintendent of the Galt Hospital in Lethbridge, Alberta.

Clara also longs to meet her eldest sister who, when nineteen, had been mysteriously sent to Nova Scotia, and, following the birth of her daughter Lily there, had married a pharmacist. Onboard the transatlantic ship, Clara meets another Nova Scotian, Doctor Barnaby, who coincidentally knew Lily at college. Clara improves the deplorable conditions at the Galt and supports the enamored mayor’s initiatives in ameliorating the living and health conditions of the city’s prostitutes. However, unknown to both Clara and Burnaby, Lily is also in Lethbridge, and ensuing unforeseen circumstances compel her to operate a brothel. Fate unites them to face local prejudices while seeking life mates.

While First Ladies of a country usually write autobiographies, it is fascinating that Her Excellency Sharon Johnston (the Viceregal Consort of Canada) has penned a novel that, somewhat in the style of Isabel Allende, narrates a love story with a political backdrop, set during an important period in Canada, the post WWI era. The reforms in Alberta are boldly narrated, particularly the “Lethbridge model,” which constitutes a unique way of keeping prostitution in check, and the attempts at controlling the spread of VD. Although the writing reads, in part, much like non-fiction, it is the saga of a British-Canadian family that keeps us engrossed. The open ending indicates that a sequel is likely to follow. Highly recommended.