The Rose Garden

Written by Tracy Rees
Review by Sally Zigmond

London 1895: when her mother dies and her father falls into drunken misery, Mabs becomes the chief breadwinner of her poor East End family. She works on the Regent’s Canal, the main transport link between Paddington and London’s Dockland and the Thames. Disguised as a boy, she loads and unloads goods, mainly ice. Meanwhile, in beautiful Hampstead village, north of London, Olive, resigned to spinsterhood, lives with her loving parents. She feels unfulfilled so decides to adopt a poor girl, Clover, from an orphanage. Although she loves being a mother, Olive wants to improve the way women and children, even if rich, are treated under the British legal system.

After a life-threatening incident, Mabs looks for safer employment, but she fears illiteracy will prevent it until she meets rich entrepreneur, Mr. Finch, who has recently moved to Hampstead from Durham with his wife and family. He hires her as a companion for his wife, Abigail, whom he describes as a delicate invalid. At first, Mabs fears she has made a big mistake: Abigail hates her and scares her but, as time passes, they eventually trust one other. Mabs is determined to discover the dark secrets of the household with the help of Olive, who has recently met Mr. and Mrs. Finch and who has her doubts about their relationship.

I enjoyed this fast-moving historical novel full of well-developed characters and the way their lives are entwined. However, I have one small niggle. Although The Rose Garden is set in the late Victorian era, it felt more like the world of Charles Dickens. Carriages, carts and the canals dominate – but there are no railways, London smogs, or the thick black pall of smoke which lay above London’s basin and was easily seen from Hampstead. Apart from this, I was totally enthralled by the novel.