The Rose Garden by Tracy Rees – female friendships in late Victorian London in desperate days

The Rose Garden by Tracy Rees

London in all its beauty and challenging environments is the setting for this tremendous book of the power of female friendship. Ranging from a girl working in a difficult, dirty and dangerous job on the canals to a clever woman who knows her worth, this novel is set in 1895 as girls and women were beginning to challenge the status quo. Mabs has to work disguised as a boy to try to help her family who live in terrible poverty. Olive has every material advantage and does not want or need a husband, but has a fixed yearning for a child of her own. They discover that getting something that has long been dreamt of can be the start of problems rather than the end. A younger girl, Otty, is confused by her family’s refusal to explore the beauties of Hampstead, and even more bewildered by the blatant discrimination shown on the streets. As situations become desperate, what secrets lie behind closed doors and how can people really be helped?

This is a novel that tackles head on some of the issues which affected many people, especially women, in the final years of the nineteenth century. The fight for women’s rights was more than just about votes, and this novel personalises some of the pressures on girls and women in terms of independence and education and much more, as well as the realisation that for the poor, nothing has improved since “Dickens’ London”. It is powerfully written and skillfully creates real empathy for the mainly female characters who have to struggle to achieve their aims and maintain them. While it is realistic that no one is completely bad or completely good, this book goes further in terms of people needing to pause to consider what is going on, especially Mabs who has so much to offer, and is painfully aware of her limitations. Olive has personal wealth and choices, but she knows that still doesn’t guarantee her total happiness. This is a mature and fascinating book in which the research into life in the Victorian era never slows the story, and adds considerably to the atmosphere created by the weather as well as the settings. I was so pleased to have the opportunity to read and review this excellent book. 

The book begins by telling of a day in the life of Mabs, as she is disguised as a boy, wearing virtually every possible item of clothing she could find, and still bitterly cold as she works to help move huge blocks of ice on the canal side. It is dangerous work; at one point she has to be rescued as a huge block of ice slips towards her. The necessity to work is strong as she has younger siblings, her mother has died and her father is unable to maintain steady wages. When she is given a chance to improve her lot and that of her family she is keen to seize it, hardly daring to believe her good fortune, but soon discovers that working for the Finch family is not going to be easy, with a woman shut up in her bedroom at all times. Olive, meanwhile, has made a reasoned decision to adopt a child. She is aware that it may well ruin any possible chance of attracting a suitor, but her parents are supportive. Her choice of girls, however, proves to be more difficult than she expected, and she finds that some of her efforts to help are thwarted. Her resources and intentions are admirable, and she is a fixed point for much of the book, especially as she narrates her own views. That is especially effective when she encounters Otty, who also narrates her story. 

This is a detailed novel which achieves a great deal. It is a rattling good story with quite a complex plot which has many surprises. It is full of well drawn characters who each have many layers, even if their part in the story is relatively small. I thoroughly recommend this book to anyone who enjoys female led historical fiction which goes beyond romance.