The Servant is an enjoyable, enlightening story that will restore your faith in the healing power of love (if it needs restoration!) and friendship … but not before it’s dragged your poor, tattered heart through the worst squalor of Georgian London’s streets and backstreets.
historical fiction | crime
Young Hannah Hubert may be the granddaughter of a French merchant and the daughter of a Spitalfields silk weaver, but she has come down in the world.
Sent one spring day as maidservant to a disgraced aristocrat, she finds herself in a house full of mysteries – with a locked room and strange auctions being held behind closed doors. As a servant, she has little power but – unknown to her employers – she can read. And it is only when she uses her education to uncover the secrets of the house, that she realises the peril she is in.
Hannah is unable to turn to the other servant, Peg, who is clearly terrified of their employers and keeps warning her to find alternative work. But help might come from Thomas, the taciturn farmer delivering milk to the neighbourhood, or from Jack Twyford, a friendly young man apprenticed to his uncle’s bookselling business. Yet Thomas is still grieving for his late wife – and can she trust Jack, since his uncle is one of her master’s associates?
Hannah soon discovers damning evidence she cannot ignore. She must act alone, but at what price?
Author – Maggie Richell-Davies | Published by Sharpe Books in April 2020 | 286 Pages (paperback)
I would like to thank Maggie for sending me a copy of The Servant in return for an honest review.
At just ten years old, Hannah is sent to the poorhouse by her stepmother, where she endures a horrible existence for three years before good chance carries her to a kitchenmaid position in the Buttermere household. I say good chance because she is well fed, warm, suitably clothed, and allowed to read some of the books in the family’s library. For Hannah’s roots aren’t that of most other child servants; before being coldly cast-out by her stepmother, Hannah came from an educated family who taught her well but who fell on hard times.
The Servant opens to the moment where Hannah, now fifteen, is enduring another upheaval. Mrs Buttermere is moving to York and no longer needs Hannah’s services. She has been a kind mistress, and true to character is seeking to secure a new position for Hannah in a good household. Hannah’s first impressions of the hard-faced Mistress Chalke aren’t favourable, but she is a girl under no illusions about her position in life, and so she accepts the change with hope in her heart.
Quite quickly, Hannah’s initial instincts prove to have been remarkably astute, and the more she comes to understand the comings and goings of her new Master and Mistress, the more assured she is that this is a house with some very dark secrets.
I immediately warmed to Hannah’s character; she’s intelligent and kind, with great integrity. In fact, her nature is so intuitively generous that there are many points in the book where she puts herself at risk in order to help others. The Chalke’s skivvy, Peg, is soon taken into Hannah’s kindness, and in return she tries to warn Hannah to leave the household as soon as she can. But Mistress Chalke’s stern warnings to stay away from the Master’s reading room prove too much of a draw for Hannah, and the day she unlocks that room proves to be the day she sets in motion her own, seemingly unstoppable undoing.
The Servant is a very well-written and well-structured story, with a strong sense of place peopled by a cast of likeable and detestable characters. It is unflinchingly loyal to the issues and harsh realities of the period, so readers should be prepared for a number of unpalatable truths; from blood sports and slavery, to the immoral desires of men in positions of power. The reader is exposed to some terrible injustices, viewed through Hannah’s eyes, but the author has taken care to grant moments of reprieve with acts of bravery and generosity from unexpected quarters.
As a sucker for a happy ending, I was extremely relieved to reach the point when Hannah and Peg’s fortunes take a turn for the better. And I was extremely grateful to the author for including the character of Thomas who, I felt, had an air of a more genial (and down-to-earth) Mr Darcy about him. Not only does Thomas offer the (at times) frustratingly stubborn Hannah salvation, he also rescued me from being drawn down into the sense of hopelessness that engulfs some of the darker aspects of the story.
From the author’s notes at the end of the book I learned that Maggie had been inspired to write The Servant having visited London’s Foundling Hospital Museum. Her book has brought the stories of girls and women of this time out of the museum and into our homes, tenderly shining a light on the dreadful lack of options facing desperate mothers, and the lengths they had to go to for their newborn babies. Whilst this is a work of historical fiction, it’s written in a tone of voice, and with just enough emancipation, to chime well with readers of contemporary fiction.
I thoroughly recommend this book to fellow readers, but I feel it’s best to be aware that it does contain themes, including rape and child abuse, which some readers may find upsetting.
The Servant is available now from Amazon in paperback and kindle formats.
Maggie Davies was born in Newcastle and has a first-class honours degree from the Open University.
The Servant, her debut novel, has won the Historical Writers’ Association 2020 Unpublished Novel Award, together with a publishing contract from Sharpe Books.
The book was inspired by a visit to London’s Foundling Hospital Museum, with its heart-breaking stories about the tokens desperate women left there in the hope that they might, one day, be able to reclaim their child.
Maggie has had short stories published, been shortlisted for the Bridport Flash and Olga SinclairAwards and longlisted for the Exeter Novel Award. She is a member of the Historical Writers’ Association and the Romantic Novelists’ Association.
She lives in Royal Tunbridge Wells with her husband, but also spent a number of years in Peru, Africa and the United States.