Velvet by Mary Hooper

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Velvet by Mary Hooper

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Category: Confident Readers
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: Linda Lawlor
Reviewed by Linda Lawlor
Summary: Everyone seems to have secrets in the house of Madame Savoya, the fashionable Victorian medium. But the things Velvet discovers about her new employer are so terrible that they put her life in danger.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 336 Date: September 2011
Publisher: Bloomsbury
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 978-0747599210

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The opening chapter of this book is a roller-coaster of a read. Velvet has fainted while doing back-breaking, gruelling work in a laundry, and risks being sent to the workhouse. Quick thinking saves her job, and the reader relaxes, only to learn a shocking and shameful secret about the heroine we have already begun to like. Her fortunes soon change, in true Dickensian style, but her troubles are not over: this same secret will come back to haunt her (please excuse the pun) and put her in the power of one of the other characters.

When Velvet burns a blouse, she expects to be dismissed. Instead, to her delight and astonishment she finds herself invited to join the household of the well-known medium Madame Savoya. From a tiny, cupboard-sized room and constant hunger, she moves to a comfortable, caring home where she is respected and well cared for. Her horrible past, and her even more horrible father, have forced her to be fairly streetwise, just in order to survive. But she is in all ways a girl of the Victorian age, and whatever life forces her to endure she retains an innocence and an ignorance of the evil machinations of high society which lead her to trust Madame Savoya long after the reader has grown suspicious. She longs desperately to believe that her employer is a truthful and kindly woman rather than a cynical thief who exploits the bereaved, and despite the lie she tells at the beginning of the book and her change of name, her basic honesty and clear sense of right and wrong ring true as she struggles with her dilemma. Should she tell someone that her elegant and generous employer is using trickery? If she does, she will be thrown out on the street, and her own secret will be revealed to the world. What she does not realise is that someone in her mistress's household is willing to go so far as to kill her to prevent her speaking out.

Mary Hooper's books give the reader excellent insights into aspects of Victorian life. In Fallen Grace she showed us their preoccupation with death and mourning: here we see once again the possible fates waiting for young orphan girls, this time set against the backcloth of the era's craze for spiritualism, and the horror of the baby farms. The facts are gently introduced, using simple prose and clear descriptions, and the use of real people like the creator of Sherlock Holmes, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and the evil Amelia Dyer in whose care dozens of babies died of starvation and neglect only help to create an authentic atmosphere. The book is not heavy going, though – Ms Hooper wears her learning lightly and there is never any sense of preaching or educating. For those who wish to know more about the various aspects of Victorian life touched on in the book, there is a series of short explanatory paragraphs at the end of the book.

What is particularly good about this book and others by Ms Hooper is that Velvet and the other characters are not just people from the modern era in fancy dress: they are emphatically of their age, thinking and behaving as their upbringing and milieu would make them. Velvet has been brought up to be obedient and respectful towards her elders, and she is, to start with at least, thoroughly in awe of those richer and more powerful than herself. And although she falls in love during the course of the book it would never occur to her to allow her suitor anything more intimate than a few chaste kisses. (this delicacy of approach is the reason, by the way, for the 'confident readers' classification). These attitudes may give a modern young reader pause for thought, and with luck lead her to see that citizens of the twenty-first century are just as much a product of their environment as Velvet.

The style of the book owes something to Charles Dickens and others, with its mixture of innocent heroines, dreadful deeds and threats of death or dishonour. In some ways the story has a comforting inevitability about it: a character as good and honourable as Velvet deserves a happy ending, after all. But getting to that ending is not as straightforward as the reader might suppose, and she is offered more than one route to financial security and happiness. There is adventure, suspense, warmth and even a little light humour to be had in this book, and it will find many avid fans.

I'd like to thank the publishers for sending a copy to the Bookbag.

Further reading suggestion: Girls who enjoy historical adventures with a dash of romance and a believable setting will love Mary Hooper's other books. Try Fallen Grace about another Victorian orphan in dire straits, By Royal Command about the court of Elizabeth I, and Newes From the Dead based in 1650.

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