The Surplus Girls’ Orphans by Polly Heron- In Manchester, 1922, women are forced to consider their options

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The Surplus Girls’ Orphans by Polly Heron 

Surplus girls, in the case of this novel, are the women who could not find a husband after the loss of the First World War. This is the second novel from this author which looks at least one surplus woman, though this is definitely a stand alone book with some overlapping characters who are well introduced here. In this book much of the emphasis is on children, the residents of St. Anthony’s Orphanage, who each have their own, often difficult story. The other focus of the novel is Molly Watson, a young woman who has secrets, and an unhappy engagement. Her involvement with the Orphanage and the children varies throughout the book, but it is a revealing point in her well constructed character. This book is full of excellent characters who are consistent throughout the book, each revealing something of themselves in many ways. Heron has a real gift with characters and the way they act, speak and generally behave, as well as the setting in interwar Manchester. There are characters that are deeply unpleasant, which gives a real texture to the book, a real focus for the reader’s involvement. I found this a very engaging read, and I was very pleased to have the opportunity to read and review this book. 

The book opens with Molly working in Uptons’ sweet shop, and trying to raise money to buy sweets for the children at the orphanage. Her newly engaged friend Dora arrives, keen to show off her ring. In contrast, Norris, Molly’s fiance, immediately appears to be miserly with money and controlling of her future. He is so complacent that he manages to give the impression of generosity, even though Molly is fast becoming aware of his extreme meanness. Molly has a loving family, even though her brother Tom was affected by his war experiences. She meets Mrs Atwood who has made a career following her husband’s death, and Molly decides not to settle for a safe marriage with a man she does not love. She applies to the Board of Health which employs people to check on families in need to prevent their complete destitution, and is employed despite the odious Mrs Wardle. Her new life is made complete when she becomes a paying guest at a business school run by Prudence and Patience Hesketh. Meanwhile, a boy called Jacob who lives at the Orphanage is facing a terrifying bully alone. When Molly decides to help another boy, Danny, she discovers that good intentions are not enough. Fortunately help is at hand from the Orphanage caretaker, Aaron, but he will struggle to cope with everything.

This book ‘s setting in 1922 reflects well the atmosphere of loss that must have pervaded a society rocked by the loss of so many men. It is good at suggesting how many families and individuals struggled, especially women whose opportunities for work had increased in wartime but had now decreased. It suggests how certain people had influence in local society and how it led to unfairness and even cruelty to others. The inclusion of a supportive family was a positive note in this book, when so many novels include only negative backgrounds. I really enjoyed this book with its thought -provoking themes, especially concerning women and children. With romance and dislikable characters, revelations and details of clothes, money and physical settings, this is a really engaging novel which speaks loudly of the two issues of ‘surplus’ women and children without stable family backgrounds.        

The Surplus Girls by Polly Heron – A lively novel of women affected by War losses in the 1920s

The Surplus Girls: Amazon.co.uk: Heron, Polly: 9781786499677: Books

The Surplus Girls by Polly Heron 

 

Following the First World War there was thought to be many “surplus women” who would not have the chance to marry and have families because of the large number of men killed in battle. This is a novel which concerns that problem in the case of Belinda Layton, oldest child of the challenging Layton family. Beginning in January 1922, Belinda still mourns her much loved fiance Ben and lives with his mother and grandmother rather than her family. She still makes contributions to her family’s housekeeping, as her feckless father brings in little money and drinks more. This is a highly intelligent story of a young woman desperately trying to improve her lot in a world where there are few opportunities for uneducated women, and many men are coping with the legacy of a traumatic war. Polly Heron is so skilful at creating characters that the reader grows to care about that when challenging things happen it can be so moving. Not that anyone is perfect; there are stubborn women clinging to the past, young people already gaining a bad reputation and some resourceful older ladies. There is humour, love and much more in this book of a group of people trying to find a better way to live. I am so pleased to have had the opportunity to read and review this book.

 

The book begins with Belinda working an extra Saturday shift in order to buy coloured fabric to break away from the black mourning clothes she has been wearing since Ben’s death. She has to cope with an abusive foreman, and a home life physically dominated by overwhelming grief. Visiting her own family shows her how little money her mother struggles to manage, with several younger siblings, and how difficult her life is in small rooms. Life for those struggling on small wages was very tough in the 1920s, and Belinda dispairs for herself in future as an unmarried woman, but equally for her mother who is unable to depend on her husband.  Meanwhile a pair of unmarried sisters suffer the loss of their father, and have to think laterally in order to preserve their home. When Belinda enters their lives she finds a whole new way of life offered , and an attractive young man. Meanwhile a young man is struggling to remember his very identity following a huge trauma in the War, and discovers that some answers only lead to more questions.  

 

This is a lively book which raises many questions about women who are seen as lower class by their clothes and lack of education. The desperation of the poor is explored, but not in a lengthy or extended way. There are twists and turns in this book which reflects real life well, as people must try to cope with difficult situations, and show various reactions. The research into the period is excellent, as both the settings and clothes are carefully detailed, but never in so much detail as to be tedious. This is a lively and well written book which will appeal to those who love “sagas” but also those interested in the very human and social realities of the time. Belinda is a well drawn character, and I also enjoyed reading Patience’s story. This is a novel which feels very authentic, and I look forward to reading future books in this series. 

 

A quick inspection of a certain website suggests that the next book in the series should be published in January – something to look forward to at least!