The Servant by Maggie Richell-Davies
I recently picked up a copy of The Servant by Maggie Richell-Davies. it is a debut novel, but certainly does not read like one.
Young Hannah Hubert may be the granddaughter of a French merchant and the daughter of a Spitalfields silk weaver, but she has come down in the world.
Sent one spring day as maidservant to a disgraced aristocrat, she finds herself in a house full of mysteries - with a locked room and strange auctions being held behind closed doors.
As a servant, she has little power but - unknown to her employers - she can read. And it is only when she uses her education to uncover the secrets of the house, that she realises the peril she is in.
Hannah is unable to turn to the other servant, Peg, who is clearly terrified of their employers and keeps warning her to find alternative work.
But help might come from Thomas, the taciturn farmer delivering milk to the neighbourhood, or from Jack Twyford, a friendly young man apprenticed to his uncle’s bookselling business. Yet Thomas is still grieving for his late wife – and can she trust Jack, since his uncle is one of her master’s associates?
Hannah soon discovers damning evidence she cannot ignore.
She must act alone, but at what price?
Historical novels are not my normal 'go to genre' but the blurb for this book caught my interest and I chose to read it because of that. I am glad I did. I enjoyed the story of The Servant and appreciated the author's sensitive handling of difficult and upsetting issues. There is a terrific sense of the 18th century in this novel and it is clear that this author knows her period, but at no point do you feel that she’s showing you her research or ramming it down your throat.
The story begins in 1765 when Hannah Hubert, hungry for books and company, is sent at age 15 to be a servant in the shabby London household of the threatening Mrs Chalke and her horrible husband. Surrounded by secrets and threats Hannah soon realises that the other servant, Peg, is terrified of her master and mistress. Although Hannah soon finds a dreadful trap closing about her, she knows Peg will not help her. Who will? Because the more Hannah learns about the household, the more she feels she must escape.
Step forward, Thomas, who, although grieving his wife's death, helps Hannah in her hour of need.
I was impressed by the research that the author put in to producing The Servant. It evokes Hannah’s world believably. I was particularly horrified by her powerlessness in the face of inequality and the general lack of feeling towards the circumstances of the poor. It was also interesting to learn something of the history of the Foundling Hospital. However, because of the subject matters covered which include rape, murder, human trafficking, and emotional, physical and sexual abuse, I would not universally recommend The Servant. Nevertheless, I enjoyed the book and am glad I read it.
Winner of the Historical Writers' Award 2020 Unpublished Novel Award with The Servant, Maggie was born on the North-East coast of England and has a first-class honours degree from the Open University.
Her page-turning thriller was inspired by a visit to London's Foundling Hospital Museum - with its heart-breaking stories about the tokens desperate women left there in the hope that they might, one day, be able to reclaim their child - and research into the exploitation of women and girls in 18th century London.
Details of how she came to write Hannah's story are on her website, below.
Maggie has had short stories published and been shortlisted for Bridport Flash and the Olga Sinclair and Joan Hessayon Awards. She is a member of the Historical Writers' Association and of the Romantic Novelists' Association.
She lives in Royal Tunbridge Wells with husband, Mike, but also worked for a number of years in Peru, Africa and the United States.