The Orphanage Girls by Mary Wood, the beginning of a powerful trilogy featuring life for people in the early twentieth century

The Orphanage Girls by Mary Wood

This is the first novel in an exciting new trilogy of novels about life in London in 1910 and in the years leading up to the First World War.     Mary Wood is extremely skilled at bringing to life individuals and communities in vivid ways; women who from their earliest years face nearly unthinkable challenges, where actual poverty is a force in their lives, and they have to face the cruelties inflicted by some men. While there are sympathetic characters who do what they can to help, there are also greater forces at work. This particular novel is very ambitious and brave in that it deals with such subjects as the abuse of children and the racism that affected families. It reveals something about the ambitions of young women to change their lives,and the shock of different cultures in London at the time. As sometimes with Mary’s (and her other pen name Maggie Mason’s) books, while official families may have broken down, the main female characters are often fortunate to find new effective families, and in this novel Ruth begins from a fairly anonymous institutional start. She knows nothing of her parents, her origins beyond being found as a baby, and must make her way with the help of friends. 

This is a beautifully constructed novel, with the highs and lows of Ruth’s progress well laid out so well that the reader can sympathise with her plight, as well as rejoice with her in her successes. This is a novel which introduces, establishes and maintains characters that are consistent throughout the book. They are varied, from the decidedly evil, through those who are keener to look out for their own interests than take a chance on a stranger, to those who welcome Ruth and others into their lives. There is a terrific variety of people, from staff at the orphanage and big houses, to market traders who are hardened by circumstance, to the homeless and unemployed who accept any help. The lively dialogue that the characters employ gives shape to their personalities, from the cockneys who get by, the kindly Rebekah with her African tones, to the more well off people who make briefer appearances. What people wear is also closely detailed; the shabby and insufficient clothing of the orphans, the bright colours of the African community, the scavenged clothing and headgear of men and boys living off pennies under market stalls. This book is very visually written, with vivid descriptions of people enabling the reader to imagine what the characters look like.  

This novel begins with Ruth being left in no doubt as to the abuse of various kinds carried out by staff at Bethnal Green Orphanage. The combination of poor conditions and physical cruelty is life threatening, and it proves difficult to escape. Not that freedom is easy, with no money, shelter and references, Ruth must depend on the kindness of strangers  to try to survive. While she meets the redoubtable Bett whose harsh demeanour conceals genuine concern, others are more careless of Ruth’s wellbeing. An older boy, Robbie, bears her company and practical assistance, despite his own bad memories. Their welcome from Rebekah offers more than Ruth and Robbie ever felt possible, but there are those who are actively seeking her, meaning that an orphan on the run is still vulnerable to attack.

This is an enthralling book which truly enveloped me as a reader. It describes challenging circumstances, but also the power of friendship and love when there seems to be little hope left. I was very pleased to have the opportunity to read and review it, and recommend it to fans of female led fiction.     

Secrets of the Jam Factory Girls by Mary Wood – can three young women withstand the challenges of their lives?

Secrets of the Jam Factory Girls by Mary Wood

Elsie has had a traumatic past, working at a jam factory from a relatively young age, while having immense family responsibilities for her younger brothers even before her mother’s recent death. This is 1912, when the position of women was still very difficult, not being able to vote, enduring few legal protections from abusive husbands and others, and being extremely limited as to career choices. Elsie and Dot have always been close, and in this second book in the series Dot is experiencing profound challenges despite her love for Cess, Elsie’s half-brother. Mary Wood’s experience and ability to make characters live in a multi-dimensional way from the start mean that it could be read as a stand-alone book with its well-constructed plot and lively dialogue. Speech is one of the things that divides Elsie and Dot from the third member of their trio, Millie, who is keen to mark their sisterly relationship with typical generosity but soon discovers that not everyone can be trusted, and that what has happened in the past will have long term results for all her friends.

 As the jam factory at the centre of the story which brought the girls together improves in terms of conditions for its mainly female workers, life in a big house is sharply contrasted with the tenements in which Elsie and Dot grew up, and brings a whole new set of problems. While all three girls believe they have found love, they soon discover that it may not be enough to enable them to live happily. This is the story of young women whose friendship may be the only thing they can depend on. I was very pleased to have the opportunity to read and review this moving and well written saga of life for women in the early twentieth century.   

As the novel opens, Elsie is facing a testing time as she deals with the women workers in Swift’s Jam Factory who have put up with long hours, poor pay and hazardous working conditions for years. Indeed, as recorded in the first novel of the series, there was even a real danger of death before some of the improvements brought in with the support of the National Federation of Women Workers. These are women who have repeated pregnancies depleting their strength as well as meaning big families on little money. The women are concerned about Dot, who has been absent for some six months, apparently looking after an aunt. In reality she has escaped her controlling and abusive mother and is in hiding, expecting a baby while being supported by Cecil. When news arrives that a baby girl has been born whose appearance confirms her parentage, Elsie is particularly happy and relieved, and informs her youngest brother Bert that they now have a niece. A trial that the young women were fearing has been averted, and it now seems on the surface that their lives may well be plain sailing, with Millie looking forward to marrying the handsome and able Len. Elsie is quietly attracted by Len as well, but will never reveal it to Millie who is so obviously in love. When Dot reacts badly to the strain of her relationship with her mother and her life with a young baby, she becomes very ill; can Cecil, Elsie and Millie come together to be supportive of the young mother? Will the pressures on Elsie to fit in with a new lifestyle be too much to manage, especially when someone puts undue pressure on her? Will Millie’s natural generosity and love for Len disrupt all of her other relationships?

This is a vivid novel in which all the characters are brilliantly described and play their parts. I think that it is a mark of excellent writing when the characters actually seem so real that you can feel real emotion for them; in this book there is a whole set of challenges which test everyone to their limits. Real friendship is the consistent element which carries them through the events of this novel, in a setting which is a true picture of life at the time, and a series of challenges that reflect some of the problems that were faced by women before the First World War. I look forward to the next installment with excitement!     

The Jam Factory Girls by Mary Wood – a story of women working together to transform lives

The Jam Factory Girls by Mary Wood

This is an enthralling book set in 1910, looking at the lives of young women brought together by a jam factory in London. Elsie works in the dangerous, oppressive Swifts Jam Factory, subject to the unfair rule of overseers, grateful to have a job when older women wait outside the gates unemployed. She has a family to care for despite being only eighteen:  a mother who works on the streets and brings in variable amounts of money, a slightly younger brother who picks up casual work, and two younger brothers. Her best friend Dot has a similarly difficult background despite having both parents. This is a novel of poverty and injustice, but also love, friendship and hope. As always with Mary Wood’s books, the relationship between women is the most powerful element of a novel when the odds seem to be stacked against them; there are challenges, but also small victories as friendship overcomes many problems. The two girls are inseparable, but each warm to a stranger, Millie, when they meet by chance, and it is their loyalty to each other in a small group that transforms many lives. I was so pleased to have the opportunity to read and review this book of women taking power for themselves in the most difficult of circumstances.

The book opens with a description of  morning in Elsie’s home. This is a place of a “knocker up” who wakes workers, and Elsie and Cecil have to rise and sort out the rest of the family. Jimmy is only eight, and obviously ill, but still has to help a local grocer to earn a few pennies. Bert is four years old, and Elsie has to make sure her mother, who drinks heavily, is awake to keep an eye on him before she sets off for work. This is poverty, only redeemed by kind doctors who offer free treatment for children. Life is tough, but they have a little income, which varies alarmingly with seasonal work. Dot also struggles with the work at the jam factory, lifting glass jars and sorting fruit. The stirring of protest concerning the  conditions and wages among women workers gives some hope, but even membership of a union can be an expensive option. Into this world enters the relatively wealthy daughter of the factory’s owner, Millie Hawksfield, who is struggling against her parent’s hopes of her making an impressive marriage. When she is confronted by the poverty of the two young women, she begins to discover the realities of the lives of her father’s employees, but it takes a tragedy for her to be confronted with some of her father’s actions. As she is drawn to new friendships which challenge her upbringing, the women begin to suspect more is to be discovered about those around them.

This book represents the first in a series concerning the women who worked in small factories in London in the early twentieth century. The dialogue represents the gaps between rich and poor, the ambitions of those with little, compared with the financially secure. The  descriptions of the working conditions in the factory show research into the conditions that women worked at the time, but never slows down the story. Wood uses insights into the clothes, the food and so much more to bring these women alive so that it is easy to be drawn into the story. I found this a compelling story which kept me reading once begun, and I recommend it to anyone who enjoys well paced stories of women facing challenges together.     

The Wronged Daughter by Mary Wood – does the past affect the present for women in the 1920s?


Margaret has a past, and in this book her past, and that of her friends Flora and Ella, has much to do with the events in this dramatic read. The third book in a series, this novel can be read as a standalone as it powers through a life in Bradford and other places in Britain as Margaret, or Mags, tries to come to terms with her decisions and the danger to herself and those she loves. Once more revolving around limitations placed on women in a post war Britain, and the traps they can find themselves in, the fact of their bravery on the front line seems forgotten. Wood has much to say about the strength these women have shown when very young, and how they must deal with the aftermath of a war that killed so many. 


As always, the author uses her considerable empathy and skill to wrap the reader in an involvement with these women, especially Mags. She does this with an attention to detail, clothes and setting which reveals a deep understanding of the time, and how to create a world which invites the reader in and keeps them there. There is romance, true love, and desire as sometimes women act for themselves rather than the sensible option. As always with Wood’s books, I was so pleased to have the opportunity to read and review this latest release from this prolific and skilful writer.


As this book begins, Mags is preparing for her wedding to the passionate if determined Harold when she suffers a tragic loss. Despite some hesitations and rumours brought to her by others, she follows her desires, even when there seems to be some threat to herself and the independent way that she has been encouraged to live. She is determined to maintain her involvement in the mill owned by her family, not only for herself but to continue with the social and medical provision for her workers. However, her determination is exceeded by another, and soon her world comes crashing down in the cruelest way possible. Every aspect of her life is challenged, and those who she loves are hounded and pursued. Throughout she must struggle to survive and help those whose choices have been affected by her own.


Despite the dramas and tragedies that permeate this book, there is always hope that things will change and improve. The fact that there is always someone on hand even in the darkest of times to help in small ways and add their own strength is a great theme in this book. The kindness of both friends and strangers in the face of threat is an important theme in this book, and gives it an uplifting feel despite tragedy. I enjoyed following the characters through a significant section of their lives, and as always the children are portrayed well with their own characters. Altogether this is a most enthralling, engaging and enjoyable book, which will not only please Mary Wood’s existing fans, but I expect will attract new followers to her particular brand of female centred novels. 

The Abandoned Daughter by Mary Wood – a powerful tale of loves as the First World War ends

This is a powerful book with memorable characters in every sense.

A young woman who was an abandoned child with no knowledge of her birth family is the main character of  this second book in the Girls Who Went to War series. It stands alone as a vivid story of the ending of the First World War, and how the myth of a land fit for heroes in many ways proved to be false. The situations that Ella finds herself in, the risks she takes and the love she experiences make for an enormous saga of people and place, a frequently moving story of the fight for survival, and a complex tale of love and loss. With near breathtaking confidence and a sure way with plot and dialogue, this is one woman’s powerful story of a dramatic life that literally kept me awake, so keen was I to find out what happened next. As with Wood’s other sagas of a young woman fighting to survive despite jeopardy, this is a powerful story of wit and determination against the odds and complications of life. I was so pleased to be asked to read and review this book by an established author of this gripping type of novel.


Ella is a voluntary nurse dangerously near the Front during the final months of the First World War.  It is while a brief respite occurs that a long term friend Jim changes violently, and it is only the caring actions of new friends and fellow nurses, Paddy and Connie, that gets her through a traumatic move. Battling on under catastrophic  conditions she meets a brilliant doctor, Daniel, and shares a significant experience. As peace is declared and on her return to London, she soon discovers that not everyone finds a home and a bright future, and it is in the time when she tries to cope with those who are in difficulty that she seeks to contact Paulo, a young French officer who has quickly stolen her heart. While her bravery is celebrated she endures loss, and soon finds that her past is posing a danger to her present and future just as she believes she has found love. Her life becomes increasingly desperate, and she is forced to seek to find out more about her birth family from her beloved Nanny, who is the slender connection with her homeland and the truth. Dramatic danger dominates her life, and there are some vivid scenes of abuse as nothing seems impossible. Can she and her loved ones survive when friends are sometimes the only hope?


This is such a powerful and well paced book which carries the reader onwards, desperate to find out the next twist and turn in the fate of the central character. Ella must be resourceful and brave, but even courage and intelligence sometimes seems too little as life hurtles along. The real achievement of this novel is to create a character who feels real, that the reader cares about throughout the book. This is done by a real human insight and thorough research to capture the sense of a life lived in such difficult circumstances. A book that lingers in the mind long after reading it, I recommend this book to those who enjoy a strong story well told with a central female character.


I am particularly excited to be reviewing this book on publication day! Definitely one to look out for in many shops.


Pressing on with my Evita paper, Northernvicar managed to find me a brilliant book from 1996, “The Making of Evita” by Alan Parker. Featuring an account of the making of the film a fair while after the successful stage show first appeared, it tells of the difficulty of making a film where its obvious setting, Argentina, was fraught with challenges. It is a beautiful book, full of production photographs of significant moments. I hope it inspires me to finish this paper soon!