Young Hannah Hubert may be the granddaughter of a French merchant and the daughter of a Spitalfields silk weaver, but she has come down in the world.
Sent one spring day as maidservant to a disgraced aristocrat, she finds herself in a house full of mysteries – with a locked room and strange auctions being held behind closed doors.
As a servant, she has little power but – unknown to her employers – she can read. And it is only when she uses her education to uncover the secrets of the house, that she realises the peril she is in.
Hannah is unable to turn to the other servant, Peg, who is clearly terrified of their employers and keeps warning her to find alternative work.
But help might come from Thomas, the taciturn farmer delivering milk to the neighbourhood, or from Jack Twyford, a friendly young man apprenticed to his uncle’s bookselling business. Yet Thomas is still grieving for his late wife – and can she trust Jack, since his uncle is one of her master’s associates?
Hannah soon discovers damning evidence she cannot ignore.
She must act alone, but at what price?
I am extremely grateful to the author for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. I was very intrigued by the description of The Servant: genre-blending historical fiction with a strong female protagonist ticks a lot of boxes for me, and I am delighted to say I was not disappointed. This is a brilliant, powerful book.
The story is narrated by the servant, Hannah, in vivid present tense. Rich in sensory detail and expertly crafted, the narrative feels completely immersive, and allying us so closely with Hannah’s experiences has the effect of drawing the reader right into the book, in a way which is almost suffocating at times, echoing Hannah’s suffering. It is incredibly effective, removing the barrier between protagonist and reader, putting us in Hannah’s place, and I have to say that during some of the more traumatic experiences, I had to come up for air and escape for a short while. It does get dark, and I would advise readers who find themselves triggered to tread carefully. But it is also, I think, one of the most realistic portrayals of servitude that I have ever read – Hannah’s desperate situation rings true. This is not a caper or a jolly, this is the harsh, brutal existence that many in her position would have faced.
Hannah herself is a strong woman in an appalling situation. I had some frustrations with her as a character at points because she closed herself off from a path of escape due to her principles, but this was a sign that she had become so real to me that I felt annoyed with her for not doing what I wanted her to do! Her relationship with Peg is touching and original, and I was glad she had at least one companion she could trust. Her fear of men, which understandably grows as the novel progresses, highlights her vulnerability in the male-dominated world she exists in, and had me aching in sympathy for her. The sense of not knowing who to trust, of not being able to rely on anyone except herself and poor, beaten-down Peg, looms tragically over the story, and eventually I came to understand her actions more and more. The author deftly avoids neat solutions and happy ever after cliches, bringing to bear a modern understanding of the effects of repeated trauma and suffering.
The Servant is an extremely well-written, powerful novel, which draws the reader into its dark, sometimes terrifying world and offers an examination of the real consequences of the class system at the time. It is brutal but skillful, encompassing big themes of power, corruption, education, and so on, while remaining focused on the story of one individual whose life was not counted as important by so many around her. At its best, historical fiction gives a voice to the forgotten, and Maggie Richell-Davies pays respect to the women of Hannah’s class by doing just that. This was an emotional, immersive, utterly engrossing read, and I am very glad I had the opportunity to follow Hannah on her journey.
The Servant by Maggie Richell-Davies is published by Sharpe Books and is available to purchase here.