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The Household by Stacey Halls - Review

Saturday, February 3, 2024

You know I've read and enjoyed a couple of others of Stacey's books, so when I saw this on Netgalley I requested it straight away. I am so thankful to Bonnier Books for granting access to me! This book will be published on the 11th of April, so only a couple of months away. I was provided with an electronic copy of this book for review purposes but was not otherwise compensated for this review. All thoughts and opinions are my own. 

The book blends reality with fiction in a really brilliant way. One of the things we talk about at book club a lot is about when or where or if it is possible and ethical to write books about real people. My overarching feeling is that it's fine if it's long enough ago, if the people in question don't have heirs and relatives who are still alive. For instance, writing about Queen Victoria likely doesn't matter now, but writing about Queen Elizabeth II would have different ramifications. I know other people may have different lines here but that's where I am on it. I actually really wish I had chosen this for a book club book because I think we would have loved it. I've told everyone to read it!

So apparently in 1847 Charles Dickens and a woman called Angela Coutts put a load of money in to open up a thing called Urania Cottage. It aimed to take 'fallen women' who had been in prison or involved in prostitution or whatever, and train them up, out of the eyes of everyone else, for a life in service. The idea was to get them away from the problems and temptations of their former lives, and reform them into 'good' women. This was a real place and it really did do some of these things! Angela Coutts was a very wealthy heiress and she is one of the main characters in this book. Charles Dickens is also in it but barely appears, which I think was a good shout for the author. As Angela is much less well known it's easy to shape her into a character the reader cares about. 

Angela lives in a huge mansion near Regents Park and is accompanied by her old governess, Mrs Brown, and her husband, Dr Brown. Angela appears to live a charmed life - she is rich, she throws parties, she is fond of a duke who keeps rebuffing her offers of marriage (who, as I read later, is supposed to be the Duke of Wellington, but he's not named as such in the book). But she has a stalker, Richard Dunn. He has done many things to scare and threaten her and has spent time in prison for it, but at the beginning of the book he is released and Angela has to live under the threat of him again. She has police guarding her, but she's obviously still worried. 

She gets involved in Urania Cottage. The matron, Mrs Holdsworth, is stern but fair. Some of the first 'inmates' are Josephine and Martha. It's not exactly a prison, but there are very strict rules. The women are given a lot of luxuries, though, and lots of education and some freedoms. 

Josephine has been in prison - due to poverty - and there, has started a relationship with a woman called Annie. They are both offered the chance to go to Urania Cottage, where they will be trained to be servants, and from there, they will be deported to Australia to start lives there. It's a pretty good deal and Josephine jumps at the chance. Another woman there is Martha, who has spent time in a Magdalen Laundry, although her specific circumstances aren't spelt out. She is desperate to get back in touch with her sisters, Mary and Emily, but she can only find Mary. She enlists the help of Mrs Holdsworth's son, Frank, and also that of the home's chaplain, Mr Bryant. 

This is a really twisty and turny book and I was so intrigued to find out where it would go. I didn't guess a lot of the twists which was great and I was really pleased by them, they felt satisfying. There's a lot of characters which would be my only critcism, but the book also has a lot of scope so a lot of the characters are needed. It's a really interesting look at poverty in the middle of the 1900s, too, and I also really liked the descriptions of London and bits that are now definitely London but weren't then, like Shepherd's Bush. It felt like very really settings. 

In all I'm giving this five out of five as I really liked it. Thank you for the access, Bonnier Books! 

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