#BookReview - A Pearl for My Mistress by Annabel Fielding

A story of class, scandal and forbidden passions in the shadow of war. Perfect for fans of Iona Grey, Gill Paul and Downton Abbey.

England, 1934. Hester Blake, an ambitious girl from an industrial Northern town, finds a job as a lady's maid in a small aristocratic household.
Despite their impressive title and glorious past, the Fitzmartins are crumbling under the pressures of the new century. And in the cold isolation of these new surroundings, Hester ends up hopelessly besotted with her young mistress, Lady Lucy.
Accompanying Lucy on her London Season, Hester is plunged into a heady and decadent world. But hushed whispers of another war swirl beneath the capital... and soon, Hester finds herself the keeper of some of society's most dangerous secrets...

The years leading up to the Second World War are one of my favourite periods to read about so I was delighted when Annabel Fielding contacted me to ask if I'd be interested in reviewing A Pearl for My Mistress. Many thanks to the author and publishers for my copy, received through Netgalley in return for my honest review.
I think the first thing I should say about A Pearl for My Mistress is that it isn't a quick read. Painstakingly researched and with detailed descriptions, this is a slow burner of a novel. However, although it takes a while to really set events in motion, readers are eventually rewarded with a beautifully crafted and surprisingly dark tale.
Although inevitably compared to Downton Abbey, the setting here is at the end of the opulent stately homes period. The First World War, death duties and the Depression of the 1930s all mean country estates are in decline with most houses now only employing a fraction of the staff they had working for them during their heyday. However, Hester Blake has managed to find work as a lady's maid at Hebden Hall where she will be tasked with looking after her young mistress, Lady Lucy.
The first part of the novel focuses on the relationship between the two young women.  A tragic event from Hester's past still haunts her and perhaps suggests why she was keen to leave her home town to seek a life in service even though it has become a dying occupation. She is also desperate to see more of the world and although currently inexperienced, is keen to learn and hopes this is the stepping stone to a more exciting life. However, before long she finds the excitement she craves as she finds herself irresistibly drawn to Lucy. Lucy also has a troubled past and can't wait to escape from the controlling, even cruel influence of her parents. Eventually unable to resist their mutual attraction, the pair embark on a passionate yet risky affair. This was a time when people could scarcely believe respectable women would be involved in 'unnatural' relationships and those who were discovered to have lesbian love affairs risked being sent to an asylum.
This forbidden love (a theme repeated elsewhere in the book) would be an engrossing story in itself but for me the political intrigue is what really captured my imagination. Lucy is actually a damaged young woman whose past has caused her to become angry with the current order of things; she is also fiercely ambitious and despite railing against her upbringing has still been shaped to be ruthless and uncompromising if she believes it necessary. Unfortunately she has become enamoured with the politics of Oswald Moseley and British Fascism. She moves in similar circles to the Mitford sisters, is invited to parties by Lady Astor and finds work writing for Lord Rothmere. A Pearl for My Mistress is a reminder of just how many Establishment figures were sympathetic towards fascism in this country and keen to at least appease, if not form an alliance with Germany's new chancellor, Adolf Hitler.
Hester becomes torn by her love for Lucy and her fear of the violent Blackshirts who support Moseley. Lucy may love her olive skin but Hester knows that looking different means some will regard her as an unwelcome outsider. She is especially fearful for her sister, Sophie who lives and works in the East End of London, where the high Jewish and immigrant population means the Blackshirts are especially dangerous. Eventually both Lucy and Hester must confront their beliefs and what most drives them. Lucy finds herself embroiled in ever more murky situations, she has to decide whether she can betray her friends and resort to blackmail and bribery to support the cause she believes will protect the country. Hester also has hard choices to make; is the love she feels for her mistress enough for her to accept Lucy's political beliefs, even though she opposes and is fearful of the fascist policies Lucy endorses?
What starts as a book about a touching, if risky, love affair gradually becomes much more chilling as with the benefit of hindsight we can see the inevitability of war and the horrific outcome of Hitler's rise to power. At a time where nationalism and fascism seems to be on the rise again this is a fascinating look at how people like Lucy justified the violence, anti-Semitism and racism as necessary steps to protect what they believed in, and how they were prepared to ignore German expansion to the east if it meant Britain could avoid another war.
The slow start and the sheer abundance of period details meant I sometimes felt the book lost a little of its focus but overall this is a beautifully written and engaging novel that seems particularly relevant in a modern society that may face different challenges but still allows fear and intolerance to drive political discourse too often. I recommend A Pearl for My Mistress to anybody who enjoys thought-provoking historical fiction.

A Pearl for My Mistress is published by HQ Digital and available to buy here.

About the Author

Annabel Fielding, having graduated from the University of Arts London with an MA in Public Relations, is a PR assistant by day and a novelist by night. Being a self-professed history geek, she dedicates her free time to obscure biographies, solo travel and tea. She also posts a mix of book reviews and travel photos on her blog at historygeekintown.com. She can also be followed on Twitter as @DearestAnnabel.