London, 1897: In the Blythes’ palatial Highgate home, Pansy, a 23-year-old maid, loathes her job but stays because she is in love with John the footman, who in turn is hopelessly smitten by the spoiled and beautiful daughter of the house, Rowena. Then the handsome artist’s assistant Bartek Woźniak comes to plan a portrait of Rowena, and she makes a drastic choice that her background and upbringing have done nothing to prepare her for. Rees’s compelling story is told through three female voices: Pansy’s, Rowena’s, and the unconventional, thirtyish Olive Westfallen, a sort of Octavia Hill with a sparky sense of humour, the adoptive mother of a small girl.
Rowena and Olive tell their stories in the first person and, perhaps appropriately, as she is a servant and thus virtually voiceless, Pansy’s voice is relegated to the third. This novel is a love story—or more accurately, several—interwoven with themes such as the struggle for female education (Eliza Orme, the first woman to qualify in English law, has a cameo part) and the merciless exploitation of working-class children (the paper flower factory scene could have been engraved by Doré). Female choices are limited and threatened by marriage. When a woman ‘falls’, that fall is precipitous. Rees’s prose is assured and appealing: I particularly liked phrases like ‘they are all over Hampstead like a smattering of cheerful freckles’ (of a numerous family).
Her minor characters occasionally have something of Dickens (especially the urchin-like Jem) but without his whimsy and condescension. Repeated references to ‘Cumbria’ are anachronistic; that entity came into being only with county boundary reorganisation in 1974. Pansy and her sister leaving school as late as sixteen seems a little unlikely for girls in straitened circumstances. However, this is an absorbing read with a finely interlaced plot.