Miss Lily’s Lovely Ladies by Jackie French – discovery, love and war for a determined young woman in the early twentieth century

Miss Lily’s Lovely Ladies by Jackie French

A brilliant historical novel, this book has real depth, fascinating themes, and excellent characters. The story of Sophie Higgs begins in Australia in 1902, and visits some fascinating places. There are many surprises in this well constructed novel, which looks at huge events through the eyes of Sophie and those she comes to know and love. In a way it is a book of discovery, of the social world of the early years of the twentieth century, of the political world of pre -First World War England and Europe, of the harsh realities of unprecedented warfare. Seen through the eyes of a young woman for whom much is new and confusing, yet uniquely skilled in managing people after her training by the elusive Miss Lily. Miss Lily becomes the standard by which Sophie judges everything, even though in terms of time they were together for a matter of months. The mysteries at the centre of this book will take some time to resolve, but en route there will be superb descriptions of the settings, whether that be the wide spaces of an Australian home to the formal beauty of a sitting room in the grand Shilling Hall, a battleground in France to the rural hideaways of  England, this a magnificent novel of places, but also of people. It is a big, ambitious book which features memories and current difficulties, and one which I was so very pleased to have the opportunity to read and review. 

The book opens in July 1917, in Flanders, on the eve of yet another huge battle. Sophie, formerly a picture perfect young woman of London society, albeit sometimes known as the “Corned – beef Princess”, appears now as dishevelled and desperate. The driver of a car presently pinned down in no man’s land suggests that they may well not survive the night, as either side would feel compelled to shoot them where they rested. A large dog which Sophie calls Charlie joins them, and in order to while away the time of darkness Sophie reveals the story of her life. The second chapter begins with the young Sophie out in public in Australia, with her companion Miss Thwaites. She is known to be wealthy if not from the right class, her father having made a considerable fortune from farms and factories producing tinned corned beef. Sophie is strong willed and intelligent and as she grows she is well aware of the power that her father’s money gives her, set against the limitations of being a woman for whom marriage will define her prospects. She is attracted to a suitable young man, but her father and Miss Thwaites decide that instead of an early marriage that will tie her firmly into Australian society, she should travel to England and stay with a Miss Lily, cousin of an earl, and be brought out, presented at court and enjoy a “Season”. Being a resourceful woman she travels to Shilling Hall, and her education truly begins. She has grown up without her mother, and is in some ways eager to discover the secrets of being a successful woman in society, even if her relatively considerable wealth is tainted by her father being in trade. What she learns from the mysterious Miss Lily and the company in the house will change her life, and make her reassess everything. She also learns a certain resilience and poise that will support her in the vastly changing world that everyone will face. 

I really loved following Sophie’s progress as she discovers that very few people are truly as they first seem, and the strengths and weaknesses of established society and the people who have been led to expect a certain life. It gives a powerful picture of war in both expected and unexpected ways. This is a truly memorable book which I really recommend to everyone who enjoys solid historical fiction and consistent, fascinating characters.