Opal Plumstead

Written by Jacqueline Wilson
Review by Elizabeth Hawksley

1913. Fourteen-year-old Opal Plumstead is a scholarship girl at a posh school. She hopes to go to university, though her real love is painting. She copes with not fitting in at school (she’s plump and shabbily dressed) because her best friend, Olivia, is on her side. Then tragedy strikes. Her father, an overworked clerk with literary aspirations, is caught forging a cheque and ends up in prison; Olivia is forbidden to see her; and Opal must leave school and go to work at Mrs Roberts’ sweet factory, ‘Fairy Glen’, where she’s bullied. Her life becomes utterly miserable.

Fortunately, Mrs Roberts discovers Opal’s artistic talent and gives her a more interesting job decorating sweet tins. Furthermore, she takes her to a suffragette meeting and invites her back to tea. Then Opal meets Mrs Roberts’ son, Morgan, who, she feels is her soulmate. Life is looking up. But World War I is looming….

This is a long book, 520 pages, and, for the first 140 pages, the main characters are Opal’s beloved, if hopeless, father; her best friend Olivia; and Opal’s struggles at school. Then, suddenly, all that disappears and a different story begins when Opal walks, trembling, through the gates of the sweet factory. In my view, the earlier section could do with judicious pruning.

However, Jacqueline Wilson is excellent at capturing the feel of pre-1914 Britain; the class distinctions, the limitations on women’s choices, Mrs Roberts’ wonderfully Pre-Raphaelite house; the pressure on young men to sign up and go to war, and so on. I particularly enjoyed Opal’s beautiful sister Cassie, who, unbeknownst to her mother, has a ‘gentleman friend’, an artist, and poses for him – and that’s not all she does. Times are changing and the war will turn the world upside-down.

Girls of 12 plus should enjoy Opal Plumstead.