Wednesday, 28 July 2010

Book Review: Swallowcliffe Hall by Jenny Walters

Blurb of book (I chose to use it because I think it has been written really well and I love it!) :

'Polly Perkins can hardly believe her luck when she is taken on as an under-housemaid at Swallowcliffe Hall. At first it's all Polly can do to keep up, with endless fires to be laid, carpets to be swept and beds to be made - never mind when guests arrive from London for a country house party. Will she ever feel at home in this grand old house, full of whispers and ghosts from the past? But friendship and comfort are found in unexpected places and Polly slowly begins to find her feet - until a tragic secret leads her to question everything she's ever believed. Could the elegant life of Swallowcliffe Hall be nothing more than a glittering sham?'

My review and thoughts:

I first read this book, which is the first in the Swallowcliffe Hall trilogy about 2 years ago when I was researching Victorian servants and it has remained one of my favourite books since.  I was writing a story myself at the time about a young Victorian servant and was quite disheartened to discover that many of the same events were the same as the ones I had planned to write about!

Polly, who is 14 when she first walks through the imposing gates of Swallowcliffe Hall to become under-housemaid, having  left home to help support her younger siblings and mother because their father was drowned at sea. As it is 1890,  the fashion for extravagant entertaining has reached is peak and fancy guests are always arriving for dinner parties, while the servants scurry around catering for their every need. After having worked at the village vicar's house, Polly expects the hard work but not the spiteful tricks, accusations and other hardships that she has to endure. At first she is pleasantly surprised and in awe of the grand house, which the other servants find rather amusing.  However, slowly, she gets used to the work and makes friends, especially with the beautiful 'butter haired' parlour maid Iris and others that she is not supposed to speak with.

Told through Polly's point of view, her story enthralled me as her unique voice lifted off the page and she soon became very real in my mind and I imagined how I would feel in her place as she is only a year older. Her voice was very informal and chatty and the way she described the details of her new life at the Hall was very lively and not at all like a dull historical account.
The opening of the book was very strong and got straight to the point and the action in the story, as Jenny Walters says on the book's website that she cut most of the first chapter out in order to achieve this effect of 'drawing in.'  I love it so much that I am going to include the first few paragraphs in this post below:

'I stood on the doorstep to the grand house, my heart thumping so hard that it was fit to jump out of my chest, raised the knocker and brought it down with a clap that echoed round the empty courtyard. A couple of pigeons pecking at crumbs fluttered up into the air, such a great noise in that  quiet place startled me,too, though I had made it myself. For two pins I would have taken up my basket and ran all the way home, but there could be no turning back: the new year had begun and with it, a new life for me. I had arrived to start work as under housemaid at Swallowcliffe Hall- if only someone would let me in.'

 Characters- The characters were all very authentic with natural flaws to their personality and I loved the range of characters in the book from Miss Harriet (the youngest daughter of the Vye family who live at Swallowcliffe Hall) who doesn't want to be lady like and sew but instead to be free to the stern on the outside but ind hearted Housekeeper.
Polly was very easy to relate to as she was just a 'normal girl' who goes through things that girls today of her age can relate to such as growing up, developing friendships and falling in love for the first time.

 Historical description- Through the experiences that Polly has and her description I learnt a lot about life as a Victorian servant and the world 'below stairs' that I had not discovered in research. In reading it, you will find about social hierarchy, Victorian manners and decorum, households and methods of house-keeping, the roles of servants, workhouses, the constraints put on love and courting as a servant and fashion. To add to the historical setting and detail, at the beginning at each of the chapters, there was a short snippet from a Victorian Publication such as a manual on 'Mrs Nickleson's Guide for a Household Servant.' I found them incredibly interesting and set the scene for each chapter and sometimes hinted at what it was about.

Although, I don't think that any book is perfect, I can't really fault Swallowcliffe Hall, except to say that I don't think that ll of the cover should be in a sepia tone as although it creates an aged effect, I feel it should be a bit brighter to make it more appealing.

I loved Polly's story of finding your place, friendship, mistakes, sad and trying situations and a growing friendship turning into first love. Now, I have read it several times and although it is not an amazing literary work, it has really inspired some of my historical fiction short stories.

A series
There are 2 other books in the Swallowcliffe Hall series, which follow on from the story in different time periods: WW1 and WW2. The next one features Grace, who is Polly's daughter telling her story at the Hall and there are some clever links and a surprise in the last book which links to a question that is never clearly answered in the first book.

If you like the sound of this series, there is an amazing website for it with lots of extract, information, inspiration for the story background and interactive pages. Here's the link.


  1. This book seemes really interesting. I love everything that happened during the Victorian times and I think this would be a great book to read! Thanks for the review!

  2. Sounds like a good trilogy to add to my TBR list.
    Thanks for the recommendation.

    alterlisa AT yahoo DOT com

  3. Diana and Lisa, ypu're welcome and I'm glad that you have found new books for your TBR lists. I love the Victorian era and their aren't many YA historicals about them so this series is one of my favourite and a gem undiscovered by many.

    I hope you enjoy the series, let me know what you think! :)



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