The Second-Last Woman in England

Written by Maggie Joel
Review by Claire Cowling

Harriet Wallis, middle-class wife and mother in a respectable neighbourhood, has been accused of shooting her husband. But why would she want to murder him before a houseful of well-to-do guests during the coronation day of Queen Elizabeth II, an action which makes her at once instantly newsworthy but her motivations quickly forgotten by a 1950s public and by her own family? Maggie Joel’s moving fictional narrative of lives torn apart by horror of a pre-war past and the difficulties of living in a very different post-World War II Britain answers these questions.

While Harriet’s respectable marriage to Cecil Wallis is slowly revealed to hold darker, devastating secrets which threaten to destroy everything, Jean Corbett feels that she has been called by God to undertake the role of nanny in the Wallis household to lay her own ghosts to rest. As their two inner worlds begin to converge, and social mores battle with emotional loyalties, it is clear that all roads lead to murder.

This is a story of vengeance and shattered illusions of memories past, and of respectability made unbearable by adherence to rules and social manners which no longer hold value in a post-war society. Most of all, however, it is a story of the hidden trauma carried by ordinary people throughout their lives and which, given the right circumstances, can reach breaking point. Maggie Joel has produced some ordinary yet intriguing protagonists spanning the social classes, traumatised by their feelings of responsibility for a past over which they had no control, and for whom we can feel immense sympathy.

As a piece of post-World War II social history this is a fascinating work; as a novel of crime, morality and motivation for murder, this is at once readable and heartbreaking. It comes highly recommended.