The Second-Last Woman in England – Maggie Joel

It is quite clear from the front of the book that someone is about to be hanged and perhaps picking up a book where you already know what is going to happen may seem rather strange. But actually it makes for a rather interesting and intriguing read.

What we don’t know how she got to be the second-last woman to be hanged in England?

Was the murder committed in cold blood? Was it a crime of passion? Anger? Premeditated? Opportunistic?

Well you have to read and find out. It is 1952, the Queen has been on the throne not even a year, the country still mourning the death of a King and the prospect of a new age dawning with young Elizabeth, the country is feeling the after effects of the war, rationing is still in force, much of London is still a building site and the smog is drawing a veil over London. It feels as if the place is suffocating.

It feels as if Harriet Wallis is suffocating in her life. Married to a Cecil, more by chance than design and living in a well to do part of London, where Christmas and almost any memorable occasion is delivered by “a liveried man in a large green and gold van”. (Harrods) Harriet has it all, two children, a nanny, staff and all the time in the world to do as she pleases. She spends little time with her children, they seem to be a tick in the box for convention and not for emotion, they spend more time with various nannies, the last before Harriet’s death, Jean has an ulterior motive to her position in this house. But why exactly does a rather strict chapel girl from Stepney with no family and no experience want to be a nanny?

Harriet is hiding something in this buttoned up world that she lives in. Her history slowly unfolds as the book progresses, one brother works at Buckingham Palace, a hive of activity as Coronation preparations are under way. The other brother has returned from abroad. But where has he been? And why does he not re-enter family life the way convention seems to dictate.

As family and friends  gather for the big day, with the added excitement of the new technology – a television to watch the proceedings, despite being only a short walk from the real life event, a knock at the door brings news for one of them and the resulting events end to where I came in – Harriet Wallis is to hang for the murder of her husband.

This is a rather intriguing and cleverly written book, we know the outcome and the author not only takes us on the build up to that point but also further back so we can see the development of the main characters Harriet and Cecil Wallis, how they met but further back to their own childhoods. This is all done seamlessly and without any obvious jarring when reading. Within these pages, social history is pouring out as well as society and how it was changing post war, but also how some standard were having to be maintained. The business of buying Christmas gifts and the sending of cards is a maelstrom of who sent what and to whom, and passed as a chore for Harriet;

Harriet returned to the neatly handwritten list on her lap. The list showed this year’s Christmas presents divided into two headings and two subheadings: Presents: Received and Sent; Card Only; Receive and Sent. Attached to this was last year’s list against which this year’s had been meticulously cross-referenced…

[Cecil]’I see. So next year we send them something because they sent us something this year, but they don’t send us anything as we didn’t send them anything?’ [Harriet] ‘Yes’.

This was how life was structured for the Wallis’ even on a day such as Christmas. The Coronation Day was going to be the day that changed everything for everyone.

A booked pack full of secrets, lies, changes and everything really tightly packed in that you know at some point it is going to burst and call come tumbling out. You have to keep reading in its anticipation. An excellent read and a very clever idea.

Thank you to the publisher for sending me this novel. The author will be featured on my blog on the 22 June answering some questions, I hope you can pop back and find more out about the author and this wonderful book. 

I will point out that the Second-Last woman to be hanged in England was Styllou Christofi a Greek Cypriot woman hanged for murdering her daughter-in-law. Famously it was the last woman to be hanged in Britain that everyone remembers – Ruth Ellis. For being the last, for being executed by Albert Pierrepoint who did comment about her and  also because films were made based on her, Yield to the Night with Diana Dors which was made some 12 months after her death . I recall having to study this film at university in relation to social history. 

But this book is very much worth of the title historical fiction and it made a refreshing change to read something that was based in the Fifties. I realise now, few books I read have been.