It was perhaps inevitable that I would love Martine Bailey’s second novel, The Penny Heart. I was a huge fan of her debut, An Appetite for Violets and once again she has returned to my beloved Georgian period. What makes The Penny Heart even more exciting is the Gothic world in which it immerses the reader. In a nod to the popular novelists of the era, Bailey creates a neglected old house with dark secrets to unearth.
There are two heroines to this story. The first we meet is the indomitable Mary Jebb, a flame-haired beauty working the Manchester streets as part of a criminal gang. Alone in the world and reliant on her own resources, Mary soon realises she does not want to become a prostitute like the other poor drabs at her lodging house. Using her talent for crafting sweetmeats, she charms herself into the graces of the forger Charlie and becomes involved in his operations. However, when she is caught in a confidence trick, she soon learns that her friends are powerless to protect her. The gentleman she tried to defraud, Michael Croxon, gives a powerful testimony against her and she is sentenced to death. At the very last moment, Mary’s life is saved. But is it really a reprieve? When Mary learns she is being sent to the penal colony of Botany Bay due to a ‘shortage of women’ she begins to suspect her trials are just beginning.
When we next meet Mary, she is back home in England. With forged papers from her friends, she is trying to start a new life as a housekeeper, under the name of Peg Blissett, at Delafosse Hall. Her mistress is our second heroine, the new Mrs Grace Croxon.
I found the character of Grace compelling and extremely sympathetic. Bailey has done an excellent job of making her a woman of her time, whilst giving her just enough spirit to get the reader onside. Grace has lived a sheltered life after the death of her mother, trying to care for her drunken father. When her best friend marries and her father chases her sweetheart away, she realises the true misery of her situation. It is no surprise that when the opportunity to marry the handsome Michael comes along, with her father’s blessing, she is eager to take it. Like many women of the era, Grace is aware that Michael’s primary interest is the money she will bring to the marriage. But although she feels gauche and inexperienced in his presence, she trusts that love will come in time.
Despite these happy auspices, the union proves difficult. Grace’s marital home is the stately but dilapidated Delafosse Hall; uncomfortable, low on staff and positioned in the middle of nowhere. Local gentry do not come to call and her husband is more interested in his business and the local tavern than her company. Left alone, Grace begins to find strange rooms and stories about the house. Every detail of Delafosse is vividly created, from its winding passages to the overgrown trees that tap against the window panes. We begin to share Grace’s curiosity as she explores and gains a strange affection for the old place.
Deprived of friends, Grace becomes intimate with her servants. Peg Blissett, the confident and knowledgeable housekeeper, is just the companion Grace needs to combat her own timidity. With Peg’s help, she sets out to win her husband’s love with money, sumptuous apartments, fine food and a wardrobe full of fashionable clothes. Although she succeeds, Grace begins to suspect she has been foolish and allowed her servant too much freedom. Moreover, she is not sure that Peg is altogether what she seems . . .
The narrative switches between the two women as we sense a deadly trap closing about Grace. We do not know what Peg intends, but is clear from her narration that Grace is the object of her latest fraud. . .
Peg/Mary was a fascinating and skillfully drawn character. Through flashbacks, we begin to discover what she endured in the years at Botany Bay and how she arrived home. Teased out with perfect precision, the story reveals a more tortured and yet sympathetic character with every scene. Bailey balances condemnation with a brilliant pathos that really strikes at the heart of this woman and her need for revenge. While she is by no means a nice person, Peg’s reactions are believable given the life she has endured. And perhaps it’s just me, but I couldn’t help rooting for her a little – even if her plans were evil. She is one of those characters you just love to hate.
Through Peg, we encounter a variety of Georgian cant and get a behind-the-scenes glimpse of the criminal underworld. We sit on the dirty tumbrel to the gallows, we blister beneath the Australian sun. We also have a taste of some more period recipes, which was such a great feature of An Appetite for Violets. But Peg being Peg, these recipes have a dark twist, with many intended for nefarious means and others used to cheat customers out of money.
While both Grace and Peg are wonderful characters, it is clear that only one can survive. As the story begins to unravel, the women realise how they have underestimated each other. It all comes down to a thrilling battle of wits and nerve – I literally could not put the book down for the last quarter!
I would highly recommend The Penny Heart for a historic, disturbing and wonderfully exciting read!