The River Maid

Written by Dilly Court
Review by Katharine Quarmby

The River Maid series is a new departure for the historical romance writer, Dilly Court. In this first book in the series, set in the mid-1800s, Court tells the story of Essie, a young woman working in a man’s world as a Thames boatman, filling in for her ill (and drunken) father. Her life changes when she ferries a mysterious stranger to the docks. Cue a dizzying read of a story, which ranges in location from London’s Limehouse Docks, to country houses, Portugal and all the way to Australia and back again (twice over). Whilst the docks and London generally are well described, I was less convinced by the descriptions of Australia.

For historical romance enthusiasts it has everything: a mysterious stranger, a tall dark handsome sweetheart, gold mining, a ghost, childbirth and marriage. But Court, as in her previous novels, pays real attention to the struggles of ordinary people, making their way in the world without protection. She also writes eloquently about the extra challenges women faced, with Essie fully aware that “women’s work was to stay at home, marry, keep house”. Essie is even attacked by an acquaintance when visiting the docks, saying: “I’ve been waiting too long for a bit of satisfaction from this tease.” Thankfully Essie is not only rescued, but also prospers in a man’s world.

At times, although I enjoyed this generous-hearted book, I wondered if it was constrained sufficiently by historical facts, as Hilary Mantel urges of writing fiction set in the past. At times I felt I had to suspend disbelief in order to enjoy this rags-to-riches story. Nevertheless, it was a compelling read, as a textured historical romance, that does not forget that ordinary peoples’ lives are as important as those of people born into wealth.