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.