|The Woman in the Picture by Katharine McMahon|
|Category: Historical Fiction|
|Reviewer: Sue Magee|
|Summary: A brilliant story about the social tensions in early 1926 when England was on the brink of a general strike. The plotting is superb and the story thought provoking. Highly recommended.|
|Buy? Yes||Borrow? Yes|
|Pages: 368||Date: July 2015|
In February 1926 London was tense and divided between those who supported the principle of a general strike and those who were prepared to break it at whatever cost to themselves. Evelyn Gifford is a newly qualified solicitor and whilst she's sympathetic to the miners she's preoccupied by two cases from opposite ends of the social spectrum. Trudy Wright is a maidservant accused of theft and Evelyn has undertaken this case pro bono: her argument is that the 'theft' was of a letter asking for a reference for Trudy, but she was too frightened to hand it to her bullying employer, so only she was the loser. The Wright family worm their way into Evelyn's life: the father is a bullying, drunken, wife beater, the mother is scared and brow beaten, but the son, Robbie, is deeply involved with the unions.
Although the other case is fee paying the senior partner would prefer that Evelyn had not taken it on, sensing that it can only cause trouble. Sir Timothy Petit, rich factory owner and politician is alleging that he is not the father of his wife's three-year-old child. The wife is adamant that only he could be the father and it is Lady Petit who has called on Evelyn Gifford's services. In modern parlance Annabel Petit would be described as flaky - prone to irrational behaviour and periods of depression. It seems that her husband would like to settle the question of paternity out of court - and obtain a divorce - as speedily as possible in the hope of doing as little injury to her health as possible. Bella had brought up the question of the identity of Annice's father in an argument with Petit, telling him that it was actually another politician (of a very different stripe) who was also a Jew. She later said that this was untrue and that she had only said what she did to hurt Petit.
Evelyn's private life is also far from clear. She's still suffering from the loss of her brother in the Great War and living with the mother of his illegitimate child and their son, whom Evelyn adores. She's recovering too from the end of a passionate love affair and trying to cope with a very needy mother. (It wasn't until I'd finished reading The Woman in the Picture that I discovered that this book is actually a sequel to The Crimson Rooms, which I hadn't read. As I was already raving about the book this should indicate that it reads extremely well as a standalone and possibly even better if you have read the earlier book.)
You might think that I've told you rather a lot about the plot, but I haven't. This is one of the most carefully and densely plotted books which I've read in a long time: it's one of those books which you can go straight back to the beginning and read again, purely to see how it was done and to pick up on all those pointers which you missed first time around. You'll spend a lot of time noting how situations mirror each other through the different social classes - in fact I'd go as far as to say that you'll spend as much time thinking about the book and the implications of what happens as you will reading it. No, I'm not going to explain any further: there would be lots of spoilers if I even tried.
Of course it helps that the characters are exceptionally well drawn. I've always loved a strong female lead who is ahead of her time, so Evelyn Gifford was bound to appeal to me. One of the first female solicitors, she's working in a man's world and doing her best to be on equal terms by virtue of her abilities, despite the prejudice she faces. She's a glorious contrast to her difficult mother and to Meredith, the mother of her brother's son, Edmund. The men come off the page well too, with an excellent contrast between Daniel Breen, Evelyn's employer, and Nicholas Thorne, her former lover and sometime opponent in court.
It was a wonderful book and I loved every minute of reading it. I'd like to thank the publishers for sending a copy of the book to the Bookbag.
We also enjoyed Katharine McMahon's The Rose Of Sebastopol. For more about Britain between the wars we can recommend We Danced All Night: A Social History of Britain Between the Wars by Martin Pugh.
You can read more book reviews or buy The Woman in the Picture by Katharine McMahon at Amazon.co.uk
You can read more book reviews or buy The Woman in the Picture by Katharine McMahon at Amazon.com.
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