This is one of those books where I thought the story line was fantastic, it was well-paced and had clever characterisation BUT and it is a big but, the difficulty I had was that one of the fundamental premises of the book was flawed. There are many people who probably would not have noticed this. But, as it is something I know something about, and it was one of the main plot drivers of the book, it did somewhat spoil that part of the book for me.
The book begins in 1926, when Ellen moves to the North with her son Jospeh after the death of her husband to move in with her husband’s older brother and his sons. The older brother, Sir Arthur, happens to be a wealthy land-owning baronet, and we know, from very early on, that Ellen is a shrewd woman quick to take advantage of any opportunities that life throws her way. She sees that Sir Arthur’s house lacks a mistress and strives to fill that role, including sliding into bed with her husband’s brother. And here is where the problem with the premise of the book starts. Sir Arthur tells Ellen that he cannot marry her because it is against the law, a ‘fact’ that is also repeated when Sir Arthur’s sons are discussing their father’s relationship with their aunt, and one comments to the other that a school teacher told him that a man can’t legally marry his brother’s wife. The problem is that this is not correct, because in 1921 a law was passed that allowed a man to marry his brother’s widow with the passing of the Deceased Brother’s Widow’s Marriage Act.
This Act was passed after the horrific loss of life following World War I, with the sentiment expressed that many men going off to face the enemy in the trenches, certain that the likelihood was that they would not return to their young wives, had left the care of these women to their younger brothers, who, in turn, wished to honour their commitment by taking the widow of their fallen brother as their wife. This overturned an understanding that had existed for centuries that it was impossible for a man to marry his brother’s widow. So Sir Arthur could, indeed, have married Ellen.
If nothing else, this shows the importance for writers of always doing your research. Still, as ever with Cookson, as she tells a terrific story, I found myself letting go of this plot flaw. It was hard not to, as you really take characters like Maggie straight into your heart. Dysfunctional relationships, fractured families, a bit of murder all set against the backdrop of the North as it hurtles head long into another war. A terrific book – if you can get past the error regarding what was, and was not, lawful.
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