Star rating – 8/10
Fifteen year old Mary is an illiterate nineteenth century farm girl, whose life is changed when her indifferent and unloving father sells her into domestic service to the nearby vicar. Nell Leyshon captures her proud spirit brilliantly, and also manages to reflect the spirit of the age in her voice.
This is a very slender book, a novella in popular parlance, although just as long as a substantial short story, but that’s another debate. Mary’s fate is sealed from the first pages in terms of life chances and opportunities. But she is by no means a meek sort of girl; in fact her habit of speaking her mind often gets her into trouble. She knows this but stubbornly refuses to change in a marvellous ‘take me as you find me’ sort of way.
The vicarage opens up her eyes to a world of letters and books, and part of the joy of the writing is in Mary’s first steps on this voyage of literary discovery. Her close and warm relationship with her elderly grandfather, whom she misses dreadfully when she leaves home, is a joy, and one of the only pleasures in her hard life.
Ultimately the sadness of Mary’s situation is that she has no choices at all in the life she leads. She is potentially the victim of the men in her life, and of her poverty and class, although the way she is prepared to stand up for herself and to fight all comers makes for a wonderfully enjoyable short read.