‘The second-last woman in England’ by Maggie Joel

2010, 345p.

This book had me in, right from the first page.  The book and its marketing is a little more chick-lit than I’m usually attracted to but hey- what’s wrong with just sinking into a book and going with it?  I often wonder how much of my reaction to a book is framed by the books that I might have read immediately beforehand.  Perhaps with this book  I was burned out after reading about gentlemanly characteristics and judicial personalities.

The book opens on Coronation Day, June 1953 as Harriet Wallis shoots her husband dead.  We are told from the start that she hangs for the crime- the second last woman in England to do so.  The book then winds back to 1952, nine months prior to the shooting and it creeps up, in fairly short chapters, to the shooting which occurs in the final pages of the book.

What I really enjoyed about the book was the setting of post-war, affluent London and I realized that I don’t think I’ve read many books set in this time or place.   Beneath the social  functions and respectability, this is an unhappy household- a barbed wire Mary Poppins!  I know that Lisa at ANZLitLovers felt that the relationships were hackneyed and stereotyped, which may be true,  but when I thought about it I couldn’t identify from where I might have absorbed this stereotype .   It came over as a carefully researched book and although at times I baulked at the detailed listing of particular brands and possessions, it seemed consistent with the status-consciousness of the characters and their milieu.

I was annoyed by at least three typos that I noticed- just not good enough. (It is a Pier 9 book, part of the Murdoch stable. Sniff.)  But, to be honest I found myself turning the pages avidly, but trying to slow down too because I was enjoying it so much.  I can’t say that I’ve experienced that with my gentlemanly characteristics and judicial personalities recently.

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6 responses to “‘The second-last woman in England’ by Maggie Joel

  1. Pier 9 and Murdoch books actually have nothing to do with Rupert Murdoch, or the Murdoch stable. Sniff. I was doing research on a peper and it is just an Australian owned business. Name is a coincidence.

    • Ah, my mistake. I assumed that it was. I see on their website that the company originally was a subsidiary of Murdoch magazines, purchased from News Limited in 1991. My point about the typographical errors still stands, though.

  2. “Post-war affluent London” was somewhat in the extreme minority which is why it’s barely mentioned in books; Britain was on rations until the 1950s and many of the affluent were taxed up to the top of their button up boots.

    • Yes- there’s a mention of how they seem to be able to ‘miraculously’ obtain even luxury items when everyone else was on rations. The book opens at the Coronation Day party with them serving olives, salmon, a crab-meat souffle and french toast which at first struck me as an unusual, and surely anachronistic menu for the 1950s let alone post-war Britian 1950s. By the end of the book, when we return to the scene, I’d been convinced that the family would indeed have had access to such food.

  3. The Second last Woman in England is a great title and when you look closer and see that it means the second last woman to be executed in England it is even more intriguing . I was a child in England myself in the 1950’s when this novel was set, and while I don’t remember much, I do recall the feel of the propriety and the orderliness of everyday as life as caught so well by TSLWIE. And I do remember the Coronation which figures so largely . I don’t think it can be classified as a spoiler if I say that it is on Coronation Day that the killing takes place as this is stated in the Prologue anyway. We know that Mrs Harriet Wallis killed her husband Mr Cecil Wallis and that it was perhaps the “breathtakingly unpatriotic timing of Mrs Wallis’s crime that caused the jury to take mere 45 minutes to find her guilty”.
    Why she did it , in the best traditions of crime novels, is not revealed until the last pages, in fact, if I have a criticism of the book it is that too much is revealed in the last pages. I would, I think, have liked it better had I been told a little more just a little earlier so I could have savoured the final denouements a bit more . But that is a minor criticism really.
    The key motif of the book is, I think, duty, or at least duty allied to love and while that sounds rather bland and stuffy, in this novel it really is not. What is, you wonder, behind the relationship between Mrs Wallis and her younger brother – why does she seem so desperate for him to be accepted, even to the detriment of her own marriage? And why does Nanny Corbett seem to need this household, where the children patently don’t need her? Is Mr Wallis the (albeit stuffed-shirt) paragon he seems?
    I have seen a review in which it is said too much time and writing was devoted to minor characters, and I cannot agree with that, in fact, I don’t believe there is one minor character whose portrayal does not, in some way add to the general ambience of duty , love (or its absence) and class relations in changing times.
    One slight pickiness I have is the presence of a couple of anachronisms. “One-off” was not a term in use in the 50’s and no upper middle class boy, no matter how daring would ever have said “how’s it hanging ?” to his father , even if the phrase had been coined then , which it hadn’t. “Dolly bird” was not coined till the 60’s and drawer, as in desk drawer is not spelled draw.
    All in all, a very good read indeed and I shall most certainly look for titles by Maggie Joel again

    • Thanks for your comment- you’ve obviously really enjoyed the book. The anachronisms you point out are rather damning aren’t they? They are symptomatic of some of the sloppiness in the editing of the book. I agree with you about the constellation of characters- I thought that it added to the description of a whole milieu- friends, acquaintances, material possessions etc.

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