Tuesday, September 29, 2009

A woman ahead of her time

Being a woman of the "working class" during the early part of the 20th century was not an enviable position. There were few opportunities for advancement or recognition of special skills. That is the situation of heroine of Maisie Dobbs, a delightful book by Jacqueline Winspear, finds herself in.

Maisie is an extremely intelligent and inquisitive girl, born in 1897 to a costermonger and his wife. The job of a costermonger was strenuous and involved delivering vegetables with a horse and cart. When Maisie's mother dies, her father has no choice but to send the 13 year old girl into service. The devastated Maisie begins work as a maid at the home of the aristocratic Lady Rowan and her husband Lord Julian. Maisie gets on with the work, but is soon distracted by the well-stocked library. She decides to further her education in secret, getting up hours early in order to read on her own before starting her duties for the day. Inevitably, she is discovered. Rather than losing her position, her employers decide that she has a mind which should be developed and nurtured. She is placed under the tutelage of Maurice Blanche, a friend of the family who has wide-ranging interests.

Maisie eventually is accepted to a women's college at Cambridge, but her education is interrupted by the start of World War I. Like many other young women of her time, Maisie volunteers to be a nurse and is sent to France. While there, she experiences many horrors, but also finds love.

Jumping forward to 1929, Maisie has taken over Maurice Blanche's detective agency upon his retirement. She is called upon to investigate the possible infidelity of a young wife, but is drawn into a mystery which takes her back to her war experiences.

The events in the novel jump back and forth in time, and tantalizing hints are dropped throughout the book which are only answered at the very end of the novel. Not having read much about World War I, I found this book to be extremely enjoyable. It was also a tumultuous time in English society, as old social walls began to crumble. "Factory girls" could make a great deal of money and were suddenly a new force to be reckoned with. Females suddenly had more options in life than becoming wives or servants in rich households.

This is the first of seven novels about the exploits of Maisie Dobbs, and I'm looking forward to reading them all!

Final Verdict for Maisie Dobbs: Four Gherkins, for being a fascinating look at a forgotten time in history

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