Off the Rails by Beryl Kingston

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Off the Rails by Beryl Kingston

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Category: Women's Fiction
Rating: 3/5
Reviewer: Sue Magee
Reviewed by Sue Magee
Summary: The story of George Hudson, the Railway King and of the girl he didn't marry. A light and undemanding read but enjoyable.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Yes
Pages: 224 Date: November 2011
Publisher: Robert Hale
ISBN: 978-0709090953

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A young girl from a Yorkshire village was weeping, begging her mother to be allowed just one more night at home, but the carter was waiting for her. The girl was fifteen, unmarried and pregnant. She was to go and stay with her aunt until the baby was born and she would be Mrs Smith whose husband had died at sea. The father of the baby was actually a village boy, George Hudson, who would prefer to pay a fine for bastardy than make an honest woman of the girl. He too ended up leaving home over the matter. In the years to come the paths of Jane, along with her daughter Milly, and George Hudson would cross and recross with Jane swearing that she would have vengeance.

Just about two centuries on we remember George Hudson as the Railway King. Living in York, where he had dragged himself up from nothing by any means possible, he was responsible for bringing railways to most of the country. He became fabulously wealthy, obese and deeply unpleasant - and he would get his comeuppance. All this is true and Beryl Kingston has seamlessly woven her story of Jane and Milly - and the people they would meet and love - into the far less pleasant story of George Hudson and it's very difficult to see where truth ends and fiction begins.

There's a particularly good evocation of York at the beginning of the nineteenth century and of the changes as York moved from being a rather outdated late Middle Ages town into the centre of a rail network in the early modern era. It's skillfully done and Hudson makes an excellent vehicle for the story. We've seen Kingston use this format before in Gates of Paradise when the life of the poet William Blake was the vehicle for a love story between two (fictional) servants.

I'll confess that I found the story of Jane Smith slightly dull after the initial furore over the birth of the baby. I couldn't help but think that she was often incredibly lucky in how things fell for her and her family. Life does work out this way for some people - but it doesn't make the best of stories. Hudson was the redeeming personality of the book for me and despite knowing his story quite well he kept me reading to the end to make certain that he got his due reward.

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

If this book appeals then you might enjoy A Commercial Enterprise by Sandra Heath or The Wrong Miss Richmond by Sandra Wilson. You might also appreciate The Yearning Heart by Sylvia Broady.

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