First I read In the Shadow of the Lamp by Susanne Dunlap. It’s set in 1854, and Molly, our protagonist, dissembles a background in nursing in order to be able to join Florence Nightingale as she assembles a coterie of nurses to go to the Crimea. I’ve heard of the Crimean War, and I associate it with Florence Nightingale and with the Charge of the Light Brigade. The vague location in my mind of “the Crimea” is somewhere near Istanbul? It turns out that I’m not so very far off. The Crimea is farther north, on shore of the Black Sea in what is now the Ukraine, but the nurses ended up at the British army hospital in Scutari, which was in a section of Istanbul. Wikipedia:
During the Crimean War (1854-1856), the barracks was allocated to the British Army, which was on the way from Britain to the Crimea. After the troops of the 33rd and 41st left for the front, the barracks was converted into a temporary military hospital.
On November 4, 1854, Florence Nightingale arrived in Scutari with 38 volunteer nurses. They cared for thousands of wounded and infected soldiers, and drastically reduced the high mortality rate by improving the sanitary living conditions until she returned home in 1857 as a heroine.
The story of how Molly learned to be a real nurse and of her comrades in healing turns into a romance and even a bit of a ghost story. I was intrigued enough to look up more information about the Crimean War and about Ms. Nightingale, and I recommend the story for lovers of historical Victoriana.
Fallen Grace by Mary Hooper takes place in almost exactly the same time period, 1854-1861, as In the Shadow. In this novel our heroine is named Grace Parkes, and she, too is poor, spunky, and determined. Grace has an older sister, Lily, who is mentally handicapped, and the two sisters are orphans. The book deals with Victorian death customs, specifically the death of Queen Victoria’s beloved husband, Prince Albert, and with the many difficulties facing a young, unprotected and unattached female in Dickensian London. Grace and Lily are adrift in the city, and they face off with evil villains worthy of a Dickens novel. I thought the history was well-researched, and the story was absorbing as Grace tries to protect her sister Lily and make a way for the two of them to live an honest and free life in a harsh world.
I liked this rags to riches story very much, even though it was somewhat unbelievable. Dickens himself is rather unbelievable, if you stop to think carefully about some of his plots, but he manages to carry it off anyway. Ms. Hooper is writing in that tradition, but the style is appropriate for a modern YA audience.
The last of the three books I read was The Agency: A Spy in the House by Y.S. Lee. The other two novels were gateways to history with real historical characters, such as Dickens, Nightingale, and others, making cameo appearances and with lots of real historical events featured in each book. The Agency is more of a straight spy novel that happens to be set in Victorian London, same time period again, 1853-1858. The protagonist is again a young woman, Mary Quinn, and the lady is in just as much trouble as either Grace or Molly as the novel opens. Mary,in fact, is about to be hanged as a thief before she is rescued by a mysterious benefactress and taken to Miss Scrimshaw’s Academy for Girls to be educated. A few years later, when Mary is grown, she goes before the two ladies who run the school, Miss Treleaven and Mrs. Frame to decide with them what she is to do with her life. There Mary learns about a secretive spy/detective agency that the two ladies operate, and she is given the opportunity to begin training as an operative.
I enjoyed this book almost as much as I did the other two novels, but I did think that this one had some holes in the plot and and missed transitions. I was never sure how Mary Quinn managed to justify her detective activities to her erstwhile partner/romantic interest (who doesn’t know about the secret Agency); her story that she was looking for a runaway maid was rather thin and unbelievable since she never did anything related to the maid’s disappearance. That’s just one example. Ms. Quinn often jumps to conclusions that are not justified by the evidence, but of course, her conclusions turn out to be exactly right. And some of the characters change personalities in a bewildering manner such that it’s difficult to know whom to root for and whom to hate. There’s also an undercurrent of feminist agit-prop, but it’s easily ignored.
The Agency: A Spy in the House seems to be the beginning book in a projected series about this ladies’ spy agency, and I’m hoping that more editing will work out some of the continuity problems in the plot and characterizations. The premise is good, but the logic of the story itself could use a little work.
Three feisty heroines, three stories of romance and intrigue, three British settings. I recommend them together as a set.