Running away to Edwardian London and the mystery of the lost Irish sister
This novel opens in March of 1912, with Tilly Harper on a train to London, hearing the train pistons shouting, as if in accusation, "Running away! Running away! Running away!". Immediately the reader is intrigued. Running from what? But the backfill to the plot is only revealed in teasing bits and pieces throughout the narrative, along with Tilly's nightmares and incomplete flashbacks, showing the hole in Tilly's life left there by her now absent father.
She's travelling to London to work as an assistant house mother in Mr Shaw's Training Homes for Watercress and Flower Girls for orphaned and crippled children. Philanthropist preacher Albert Shaw ensures that the orphans are trained to make silk flowers, taught to read and write and given a comfortable home with food and warmth. Tilly settles into her new job almost immediately, finally feeling her life has some purpose.
Thirty-six years earlier, a little Irish girl called Florrie Flynn was admitted to the same home that Tilly now works in. Florrie had lost her younger sister on the streets, was found by Albert Shaw in a desperate state, and became a silk flower trainee herself. Despite searching for her younger sister Rosie for the rest of her life, Florrie never did find her, and died some years later. Word in the house is that Florrie never recovered from her loss, even though she grew up to become a house mother herself.
When Tilly finds an old wooden box hidden in the back of her wardrobe, she's intrigued. It contains Florrie Flynn's journal. The contents of the journal inspire Tilly to attempt to unravel the mystery of the missing Rosie. There's an old handkerchief in the wooden box, too, with a distinctive shamrock embroidered on one corner. Tilly remembers a lady she met on the "Running away!" train producing an identical shamrock handkerchief. Is this a clue?
Florrie's lost sister is not the only mystery, though. Tilly has secrets of her own. Why did she leave her beloved Cumbrian village of Grasmere to work in the coal-choked smog of London? Why has she not returned home for a visit? And why is she desperate to conceal her past from her colleagues?
This second novel from Hazel Gaynor is a skilful weaving of two plots running 36 years apart. With impeccable historical precision, Gaynor introduces us to the appalling squalor of Victorian and Edwardian London, living conditions which enraged the likes of Dickens and Shaw. Shaw's Pygmalion is a savage lampoon against the society of the time, and it was the plight of the flower girls in particular which led John Groom, a Victorian philanthropist, to found the Watercress and Flower Girls' Christian Mission. His charity survives today under the name Livability. Albert Shaw is based on John Groom.
Gaynor, who is English but married and living in Ireland, bases her new novel on stories she uncovered in researching Covent Garden's flower girls.
Her best-selling debut, The Girl Who Came Home, was inspired by stories of actual passengers on the Titanic. But A Memory of Violets is no dry history lesson; it is richly crafted with mystery and suspense, and looks like a safe bet to repeat the success of its predecessor. Fans of the genre will be enthralled.
Fiction: A Memory of Violets, Hazel Gaynor, Harper Collins, pbk, 386 pages, £7.99
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