Thursday, May 31, 2018

Book Review: 'Living in the Shadows' by Jemima Brigges

Jemima Brigges is an exiled Salopian (a native of Shropshire), who left the county to begin a career in nursing and midwifery. She also is an author focusing on the Georgian era and the social mores of that period. Her debut novel -BROTHERS AT ARMS - surveyed of a fascinating family history that encompasses the class system on both sides of the social divide. Again for this book she distilled her concepts in her brief author’s note at the opening of the story, ‘Things might be different for women living in modern times, but in the Pre-Regency Georgian era, the answer would have been virtually none, had it not been for the beneficence of a gentleman – with a reason to help. In 1808, the majority of the working classes only knew about servitude and obedience. That is where we find Nell Walcote at the beginning of The Foundling’s Path Trilogy.’ Having read her second novel first – COUNTING THE COST – it is fascinating to see how well she established her reputation with her debut. Then her third period novel HELD TO RANSOM firmly polished her as one of our significant historical fiction authors of the day, meaning that reading LIVING IN THE SHADOWS is a must.

Jemima opens windows on a period all but forgotten, especially now in this time of feminist importance. In her usual style she offers historical information molded into a fine novel that adds significance to Jemima’s role in representing the importance of the developing role of feminism.

The provided synopsis of this complex novel distills the main points of the story well: ‘Set in Shropshire during the Pre-Regency era (1808-1816), this fourth novel follows the story of an orphan’s struggle to gain respectability and the people who help her. The Foundling’s Path – Part 1, tells of an alliance between a homeless girl, a country midwife and a physician; each ready to help the other - in secret - at a time when it is illegal to cohabit with gypsies and herbal treatments are likened to witchcraft. Turned off from her job, Nell Walcote seeks shelter with a relative stranger. As a foundling she grew up expecting to be treated with disdain but finds that a gypsy lives a harsher existence than even Nell has known. Whilst they are together, she finds companionship and discovers links to her birth from someone who was present at the time. Meg Chapel, an enigmatic gypsy midwife, herbalist and keeper of secrets. An outcast, with the uncanny ability to pass chameleon-like between the social classes – and to teach Nell new skills that will prepare her for the challenges ahead. Dr James Althorpe, a country physician, has a novel idea to improve his clinical practice. When he meets Nell Walcote, he recognises in her gentle demeanour the person he has been seeking. But it was not his intention, when employing Nell as a nurse to his private patients, to expose her to the licentious attention of so-called gentlemen. Living in the Shadows is a tale of Georgian country life that demands answers to many questions. Does Meg Chapel’s gift of gold truly come from the mother that Nell has never known? Will Nell ever meet the kind benefactor who took an interest in her welfare as a child? How can Nell, the victim of an attack, return the fine woollen cape that her mystery rescuer loaned her when she does not know his name? Therein is her dilemma, for without his testimony she might be accused of theft. Nell will never forget him, but would the gentleman recall his meeting with a bedraggled country girl in a woodland clearing? Dr James Althorpe perceives an inexplicable likeness in Nell Walcote to someone he has seen in the past - but to whom does it relate - where might that have been - and when? Meg Chapel’s distinctive features set her apart from the common folk of Linmore Dale. Are they also the reason why her late mother’s gypsy kinfolk do not accept her? Cast out into a harsh world, Nell’s first steps towards respectability take her through uncharted territory, but will the skills she is taught help her to navigate the pitfalls ahead? Or will her vibrant looks prove a distraction for others? And will the memories of her tainted origins impede her progress?’’

Not only does Jemima Brigges further establish herself as a sophisticated writer with this fine novel, but she also resurrects our attention to a time of sexual inequality – a lesson we must never forget. Grady Harp, May 18

Editor's note: This review has been published with the permission of Grady Harp. Like what you read? Subscribe to the SFRB's free daily email notice so you can be up-to-date on our latest articles. Scroll up this page to the sign-up field on your right.

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