I am so ludicrously excited about this I cannot wait one more week! I have finally gotten my hands onto a copy of a My Story book, which are the UK versions of the Dear America/Dear Canada books, and this one—believe it!—is by Frances Mary Hendry! Who wrote Quest for a Maid! Yes!!!!!
Young Nanny: A Victorian Girl’s Diary, 1850, Frances Mary Hendry, 2001.
Also, in the UK this book was £6.99 and buy-one-get-one-free, which I would have definitely taken up on, but somehow at some point in its life wound up in a Goodwill with a blue sticker for 50 cents. Where do I find this magical Goodwill that has all these historical children and young adult books? I need to go there. Every time I’m at a Goodwill it’s 99% weird cookbooks (Cooking with Spiders and Other Insect Parts and Meat: Boil It To Death!) and those romance novels with the white covers with the picture in the middle that are all called, like, The Cowboy’s Baby and Cowboys Home for Christmas because who even knows. And 1% child-raising books from 1985.
Anyway, one of the things that I love the most about this book (and Hendry in general) is that her characters are completely believable as really being in the times they’re set in. Lily, the young nanny of the title and our heroine, is a maid in the home of Joseph Paxton, the brains behind the Crystal Palace of the Exhibition in 1851. Her biggest goal in life is to be Housekeeper at Chatsworth, which is a huge deal—Chatsworth is an enormous and stately home, and housekeeper was basically the head of all the female servants in the house (which in a place like Chatsworth would number into the hundreds). So Lily has ambitions, but they’re totally appropriate for a young servant in 1850. I mean, it’s not like “she wants to go to college and become the first female PM,” because that’s just not realistic for the time. But Lily is determined, and consequently does her best to be the best housemaid she can possibly be.
Unfortunately, they have some issues at the house in London—the Paxtons have sent Lily and several other servants over to a different house for his cousin, Mrs. McKenzie, and her family who have just come from India. Their son, Edgar, is awful. He’s ten and a total brat and his biggest goal in life is tormenting the servants and blaming them for things he does. He pinches the servants and pushes them and trips them and generally behaves like a monster, but the house is too busy with everything else going on to pay too much attention to him—Mrs. McKenzie is expecting a baby soon, and Mr. McKenzie is recovering from an injury, and Mr. Paxton is busy with the preparations for the Exhibition. The saving grace for Lilly is Miss Laura, the McKenzie’s daughter who is close to her own age, and friendly.
The reason Lily has had to go out into service is because her father lost their cottage and savings by getting fired from his job, forcing him to go work in a slaughterhouse in London and then dying inconveniently of “lung rot.” So her mother has to take in gloves to sew, Lily went out to work, and her four siblings live at home in the slums and do what they can.
There’s plenty of drama surrounding the Exhibition—Paxton keeps drawing up designs and getting them rejected, but Lily is more concerned Edgar fucking things up and how Laura is desperately curious to see how Lily’s family lives. She goes with Lily home on one of her days off, and is slightly horrified to see they all live in one room. On top of this, Lily’s older brother has developed a really awful cough and sounds worse every time Lily is home to visit.
I love how “downstairs” this novel is—I love books that are focused on servant life rather than noble life. I am way more interested in the cooking and scrubbing and laundry and servant intrigues than I am in the wealthy residents gossiping and politic-ing and going to balls. There’s so much detail about the other servants and all their conflicts and drama, and how they handle everything “backstage,” if you will. The other servants all think just as little of Edgar as Lily does, because all he ever does is cause trouble for all of them.
Mrs. McKenzie has her baby a month early after taking a fall down the stairs, and it happens so fast there isn’t enough time for the doctor to arrive. (“Well, it was her 9th.” Good grief.) Lily delivers the baby herself, and Mrs. McKenzie is so happy with her that she promotes her to nanny! There’s a wet nurse as well, but Lily looks after the baby for the rest of the time. She’s thrilled with this—not only a promotion but easier work, in a sense. By this time it’s nearly Christmas, and when the baby is almost a month old she has a fit where she cries and cries and cries until Lily discovers that Edgar put a holly leaf in the back of her little clothes. They’re spiky! So Lily tells him, politely, that if there’s any more trouble with him and the baby she’ll tell his mother and Mrs. Paxton, and Edgar loses it, and Laura stands up for her and starts railing at Edgar as well. So things may not be going well with Edgar.
At the end of January on Lily’s day off, Laura wants to go with her again, and Edgar wants to tag along too. Edgar spends the whole time complaining about how dirty and nasty it is there, and they’re chased by a gang into Lily’s mother’s home. They stay in there, cowering, while the gang threatens to beat them up when they come out, and then Lily’s mother lends them some old and shabby clothing to make their escape. They flee, scattering a couple of coins to distract them, and manage to get into the cab just in the nick of time. Lily’s brother Jake, who has come with to protect them, starts coughing up blood and goes home. At home, Lily gets punished badly, but Laura stands up for her—telling the truth, which is that she forced Lily to take her and it wasn’t her fault.
Things quiet down for a while until February, when the family goes to the Exhibition and Lily comes along to bring the baby. The McKenzies are so pleased with Lily’s performance as nanny that they ask her to go back to India with them when they return—and here’s the dilemma. In India Lily has a real chance to get married to someone far above her station, and really rise. But it would mean losing the chance to be housekeeper at Chatsworth, and the very real possibility that the baby might die.
But then this all goes on the back burner when Edgar accuses Lily of stealing. He takes a brooch and puts it into Lily’s box—but Lily protests that she didn’t have the chance, and proffers up her journal as proof—and Mrs. McKenzie believes her. Mr. McKenzie throws a fit when he finds out, apologizes to Lily and gives her a sovereign for her troubles, and then whips Edgar. (And not a moment too soon. What a brat.) Lily is hurt that they even suspected her, and that Mrs. McKenzie didn’t apologize when they figured out the truth, and upset that Edgar flourishes when her own brother Jake is dying slowly.
In April, the worst thing happens. Edgar has not been taking all of this lightly, and when the family goes to see the Exhibition they all happen to meet the Duke of Wellington—the owner of Chatsworth and a family friend of theirs. Someone takes his gold watch, and he orders that they will search everyone until it’s found—and who do they find it on but Edgar, of course? He screams it wasn’t him, that Lily stole it and planted it on him, and Laura tells the duke everything—about the brooch incident ], how he has been trying to pin something on Lily ever since, and how he probably saw this as the perfect chance. The Duke sends Edgar to the police, and Mrs. McKenzie is losing her mind, and they all go home in a somewhat frantic state. Mr. McKenzie thinks his reputation is ruined, and even Laura is despondent.
Then Lily’s mother turns up unexpectedly, because Jake is so ill he may not live until Lily’s next day off. She goes with Laura, and Jake tells her that it wasn’t Edgar who took the watch—it was Freddy, another servant and friend of Jake’s, who stole the watch and stashed it on Edgar thinking he wouldn’t be suspected. The watch would fetch ten pounds—more than a year’s pay for Lily and Jake put together—and he had planned to split it with Jake to pay for his funeral and pay off their family debts, and use the rest to set up himself (Freddy) with a stall in the market. Jake’s plan is to take the hit for stealing the watch, be arrested, and free Edgar—and Jake is dying anyway, as he puts it. Five pounds would be enough to pay off what they owe and buy a cottage for them and set them up, as Jake puts it.
Laura offers to have her father pay them for their deceit—since they’re essentially sacrificing their child—a hundred pounds, and then who walks in but Paxton? He figured out where they were, and is in a blind rage and telling Lily she’s dismissed. But who speaks up again but Laura—explaining the situation, and at first Paxton flat-out rejects the idea. Laura points out that the strict truth will wreck their family, but this “white lie” will essentially save two families. Paxton finally agrees, and Lily asks for the condition that he not tell his family and the McKenzies who the real thief was—and agrees to have Mr. McKenzie pay her family two hundred pounds. That is like, lottery-winning, life-changing, fortune money for them, and Lily gets to keep her job as well.
Jake is arrested and goes to jail—but stays in the “comfortable private cell” the McKenzies had gotten for Edgar, where Jake dies that evening. Lily’s mother and siblings move to a cleaner place at once, but Mrs. McKenzie says they’re leaving for India again in a few weeks. Lily is torn between losing the baby she’s come to love, and her family. And then, Paxton wants to see Lily and her mother—a man he knows, Thomas Cook, is in the business of arranging inexpensive “excursions” for workingmen, and needs “decent women” to supervise the women’s quarters and homes. He wants Lily’s mother to take the job, where it will furnish a good living for her and the younger children and give them a place to live in the bargain. But Laura and Mrs. McKenzie beg Lily to go to India with them, and she finally agrees. (Although she’s giving up her dream of being housekeeper at Chatsworth.)
The Crystal Palace finally opens in May, and Paxton is awarded a knighthood for his efforts. And then, just as they’re preparing to leave, Lily’s mother becomes terribly sick and Lily needs to go care for her and her siblings. Instead, the McKenzies give her glowing references and she takes a job as a parlour maid in a hotel to learn the trade. “I shall never be Housekeeper at Chatsworth….but some day I will have the best hotel in London. I shall call it the Crystal Hotel, after the wonderful Crystal Palace that made it possible….”
Rating: A-. I loved this book SO much! So, so much. It’s wonderfully realistic and exciting, and an excellent balance between the family drama and the stress of the Crystal Palace and opening the Exhibition. And what a fascinating dilemma—Edgar is such a nightmare of a person, and Lily basically ends up having to use her dying brother to rescue all of them. God, it’s interesting, and a plot worthy of a much longer book! This clocks in at just under 150 pages of story—but how great would it be to read a full-scale treatment and expansion of all the characters? More of Lily’s backstory, and her family, and more in-depth treatment of the McKenzies, and all that? I’m pretty sure that one of the signs of a good book is my desperate wishing that there was more. Man, this is a good book. Read it and give it to kids.