West Yorkshire, 1904. When recently graduated Ruby May takes a nanny position looking after the children of Charles and Lilian England, a wealthy couple from a powerful dynasty of mill owners, she hopes it will be the fresh start she needs. But as she adapts to life at the isolated Hardcastle House, it becomes clear something is not quite right about the beautiful, mysterious Mrs. England.
Distant and withdrawn, Lilian shows little interest in her children or charming husband and is far from the angel of the house Ruby was expecting.
As the warm, vivacious Charles welcomes Ruby into the family, a series of strange events forces her to question everything she thought she knew. Ostracized by the servants and increasingly uneasy, Ruby must face her own demons in order to prevent history from repeating itself. After all, there's no such thing as the perfect family—she should know.
This captivating new feminist novel from Sunday Times bestselling author Stacey Halls is her third work of fiction and proves her one of the most exciting and compelling new storytellers of our time.
A Sunday Times bestseller!
I took Georgina the usual way home, east through Kensington Gardens toward Hyde Park. She had fallen asleep with a fistful of daisies, and I pushed the pram along the bridleway, nodding at the other nurses. Her shoes nudged the end of the cushioned carriage; she would soon outgrow it, and I felt a distant stab of mourning for the baby she had been. She could sit up herself now, which she did on fine days with the hood folded down; she loved to see the Household Cavalry with their piped uniforms and plumed hats, and ladies would put down their parasols to admire her.
I crouched to retrieve a woolen bear lying on the sand beside a pram. The baby’s nurse sat on a bench reading a novel and had not noticed. Behind her a tangle of small boys tore about the grass, bashing one another with sticks.
“Oh, thank you,” the nurse said as I passed her the bear. She took in my uniform, distinct from the other nurses’, designed to set Norlanders apart from the rest: beneath a smart brown cloak I wore a fawn drill dress with a white cambric apron edged with lace. At my throat a frothy cream tie completed the summer uniform. In winter we wore light blue serge, and all year round we did our heavy work in pink galatea, cleaning the nursery and making up fires.
“I wish she went off like that,” said the nurse. She nodded at the occupant of her pram: a slim, serious-looking child a little older than Georgina, who glared at me from beneath a white sun hat. “How old?”
“She’s seventeen months,” I replied.
“And look at her lovely curls. It’s a shame this one’s hair’s so straight. She pulls out her rags when I put them in.”
“You could try setting them when she’s asleep. If you wet the rags first, it’ll dry like that.”
The nurse brightened. “That’s an idea.”
I said goodbye and she returned to her book. We passed through Albert Gate, where black stags stood guard on the park railings, and I smiled at the old woman who sold windmills and toy balloons. The windmills waited rigidly in their crates for a breeze to stir them that August afternoon, and the woman spun one half-heartedly. She never smiled back, but I supposed I looked much the same to her as all the other nurses. We flocked to the park after lunch with our charges, occupying the lawns and benches, spreading blankets on the grass, feeding the ducks and pushing prams through the rose gardens. An hour or two later we’d pass her again, heading home for naps and paste sandwiches before taking the children downstairs to see their parents.
Georgina was the only child of Audrey and Dennis Radlett, though Mrs. Radlett was expecting again. I’d laundered Georgina’s linens in readiness and circled cots in catalogues to show Mrs. Radlett; Georgina would still be in hers when the baby came. The new arrival excited me, though I was yet to find a monthly nurse for feeding, and the prospect of sharing my nursery even for a few weeks caused a distant flutter of anxiety. For the top floor of number six Perivale Gardens was my kingdom, my domain: my office, schoolroom and workshop. Sometimes it was a tearoom, if Georgina wished to give her toys refreshment; occasionally it was a jungle, and the two of us would crawl on our knees on the carpet, hunting for lions and tigers.
Georgina’s hand opened, causing the daisies to scatter over her blanket, and deftly I swept them up and put them in my pocket. On the nursery windowsill I’d arranged in jars the f lowers we’d picked in the park, and I was teaching Georgina their names. Georgina already had an impressive vocabulary, quietly absorbing as I pointed at plates and spoons and toys and stamps. “Tag!” she’d declared one afternoon a few weeks ago, straining out of her pram to point at the Albert Gate stags. I’d felt a rush of pride and love for this cheerful, confident little girl, who everybody adored when they met, and who reflected adoration back at them.
On Knightsbridge, motorcars growled past carriages and choked the road with fumes. I glanced about at the redbrick apartment buildings, the hot potato man, the green Bayswater omnibus and the Chinese laundryman unloading fresh linen from his cart. Crossing sweepers stepped aside for ladies in wide hats on their way home from department stores, tailed by their maids laden with boxes. Perivale Gardens was a large, quiet square a few minutes from the busy thoroughfare. A score of houses stood around an oblong lawn, guarded by black iron railings and planted with cedars and rhododendrons. The Radlett home was tall and stuccoed, with smooth white columns flanking a glossy black door. At the top was the nursery, which overlooked the long and sunny garden, and the neighbors’ gardens either side. The Bowlers next door kept hens, and sometimes let Georgina collect the eggs.
The hall was empty and silent, and I carried Georgina upstairs, where she allowed me to remove her cream leather shoes and settled in her cot with a sigh. I closed the blinds and pulled the curtains, glancing into the street for a moment and seeing the butcher’s boy on his rounds with his basket. He went down some steps and a kitchen maid examined its contents at the door, piling packets into the crook of her elbow. My father did his rounds with Damson, our docile pony, A. May, High Class Fruiterer & Greengrocer painted in large white letters on the side of his cart. My brothers and I would fight over who sat at the reins with him as he steered us through the streets, waving at people. “You take the reins, Rhubarb,” he would say, putting them in my hands.
I closed the curtains.
At half past three, Ellen brought me a ham roll and a pot of tea, and I gave her a copy of Young Woman I’d read and a penny dreadful I hadn’t. I took a seat at the table beneath the window to eat, looking about to see what needed dusting; in summer, within hours of my morning clean, a thin layer of grime drifted in through the window and coated everything. On the bookshelf, the golden letters of my testimonial book winked from the black spine. On graduation day, the Norland Institute principal, Miss Simpson—who we fondly called Sim— handed them out from a gleaming stack. The books contained everything we would need for our fledgling careers, from uniform materials to blank pages for references. My photograph was pasted in the front, larger than I would have liked; I appeared stern and unsmiling, one hand resting nervously on the table beside me. At the end of my three-month probation, Mrs. Radlett had marked my needlework very good, punctuality excellent, neatness excellent, cleanliness excellent, order excellent, temper excellent, tact with visitors very good, tact with children excellent, tact with servants very good, power of amusing children excellent, power of managing children excellent and general capability excellent. I was awarded my certificate in the autumn and kept it inside my trunk. Some nurses had sent theirs home for their parents to frame, but I imagined handing it to my mother, could picture her bemusement that there was such a thing as a certificate for caring for children.
I’d finished my roll and begun tidying when there was a light knock at the door. “Come in, Ellen,” I called, moving the miniature globe an inch to the right and setting its equator. There was no reply.
“Mrs. Radlett!” I straightened at once. She was a young mistress, only a few years older than me at twenty-three or-four, and so gentle and feminine. A wide smile was the natural shape her mouth took, and pretty gowns and gleaming brooches showed her plump figure and creamy skin to its advantage. Her hair was the color of toffee cooling on the stove, and she wore it in all the latest styles copied from magazines. My own hair was thin and dark and would not be coaxed to any height. My skin turned brown easily, and since the Norland hat offered no shade, I took care to keep out of the sun.
“Good afternoon, Nurse May,” said Mrs. Radlett. She was good-natured and liked to tease; one of her favorite games was playacting at being grand and proper, though the joke was slightly lost on me. “Would you join me in the parlor when you have a moment?”
“Of course, ma’am, I’ll come now. Miss Georgina’s having her nap.”
I followed her into the house. The downstairs was far removed from my own quiet story, with its own rules and codes and timings, from which I was happily exempt. Nurses were not servants, existing in that tricky place between domestic and family, belonging to neither. Sim warned us it could be a lonely profession: friendless, she had called it. But I’d been friendless most of my life, and found only joy in the busy hours, and peace in the quiet ones. Every morning I took Georgina to the dining room, every evening to the drawing room, where Mr. and Mrs. Radlett devoted an hour to entertaining her before supper. Mr. Radlett played the piano while Mrs. Radlett danced with her daughter, lifting her into the air and guiding her fat feet around the carpet. They were as delighted to see her as if they’d been away a week, and sometimes Georgina sobbed as I carried her back to her nursery, reaching backward for her mama. “Up the wooden hill and down Sheet Lane,” I would murmur as we climbed the stairs, and by the time the nursery door was closed she had often forgotten her anguish. She sucked her thumb when she was tired, and I always removed it from her sleep-soaked mouth when Mrs. Radlett came to kiss her good-night.
The parlor was at the front of the house, seldom used and stuffy in summer, with the windows fastened to keep out the dust from the street. The blinds were closed against the heat, and the lace curtain hung flat against them. The Radletts’ house was tastefully decorated and filled with antiques; the mistress even had her own library. As a couple they were intellectual and political. They entertained often and friends called frequently at the house, filling it with cigar smoke and leaving sticky rings of sherry on the sideboards, decorating the hat stand with feathers and ribbons, like a strange tree of exotic birds. In the eaves of the building there was little to disturb me, but occasionally Mrs. Radlett asked me to bring Georgina down to kiss and pass around before bed. She always deferred to me, and was politely inquisitive about her daughter’s diet and routine; there was no doubt whatsoever who was in charge.
“Do sit down,” she said now. I took a seat in a stuffed armchair beside a potted fern.
“I have some thrilling news.” Mrs. Radlett placed a hand on her rounded stomach. She had recently begun to show beneath her waistband, and Ellen had let out her skirts. “I’ve been longing to tell you for weeks, but Mr. Radlett forbade me until it was all agreed and finalized, which it was last night, so now I can share it with you.”
I felt a glimmer of excitement and straightened my apron.
Stacey Halls grew up in Rossendale, Lancashire. She studied journalism at the University of Central Lancashire and has written for publications including the Guardian, Stylist, Psychologies, the Independent, the Sun and Fabulous. Both of her first two novels, The Familiars and The Lost Orphan, were Sunday Times bestsellers, Mrs England is her third novel.