The Second Last Woman in England by Maggie Joel

This is the first of several book reviews I plan to post this week. As always I received a free copy of the book in exchange for an honest review. I receive no other compensation for this apart from the hours of reading which I usually enjoy with the books I review.

The book in question is The Second Last Woman in England by Maggie Joel

1953: Mrs Harriet Wallis is convicted of the murder of her husband, Cecil, and is sentenced to death by hanging.

1952: The Wallises appear to be a conventional household. When the police turn up at the front door on the day a new nanny arrives, so begins a chain of events that will culminate in Cecil’s murder.

An employee at Cecil’s firm has embezzled money and Cecil is implicated. Meanwhile his wife, Harriet, is dismayed by the reappearance of a man she did not expect to see again…

Set in post-war London, we follow a well-to-do family – both inside and outside the house – ruled by strict conventions.

On the whole I liked this book. However right from the first time I heard about this book I somehow had the impression that this was a fictionalised account of a real person (similar to Fever by Mary Beth Keane which I loved) and that there really had been a Harriet Wallis who murdered her husband on Coronation Day. I wondered a lot as I was reading it how much was conjecture and how much was based on true facts. I planned to look it up online because I wanted to know more. And then I got to the end of the book and read the afterword. I was disappointed to discover that it was completely fictionalised and the actual second last woman put to death in the UK was someone else. I’m not sure why but disappointed I was.

This book had characters that were you were obviously supposed to hate and ones you were obviously supposed to like and/or feel sorry for. And that worked. It also had a couple of characters I didn’t really understand – part of me wonders what they brought to the story but then I can also vaguely see what they were trying to do with them. I think.

I would have loved to have had more of the Nanny’s story in this book – she had a very interesting tale and the conclusion of it wasn’t something I’d seen coming. I’d not even twigged that there was something there. I do like books that surprise me. It occurs to me writing this that actually more of the Nanny’s story might have ruined that and probably it was just the right amount.

Overall I have to say that as much as I liked this book it’s probably not going to stand out in the future as one of my favourites. What it did make me think however is that my decision to take my first tentative steps in reading historical fiction was definitely the right one. I don’t think it’ll ever become one of my favourite genres but it’ll definitely be something I read.

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