Secrets and lies flourish in an unusual tale of upstairs/downstairs suspense, set in Victorian London.
Part mystery, part social drama, Brightwell’s debut is an engrossing period piece, thickly atmospheric in its evocation of England during its colonial heyday. Sixteen-year-old Jane Wilbred arrives from Devon to work as a maid in the Bentley household, having concealed the fact that her mother was a convicted murderer. Mrs. Bentley senior is ill and her son Robert and his wife Mina are visiting from Paris, to care for her. Jane, however, is not the only resident with secrets. The servants are cheating their mistress and behaving suspiciously. Mina is haunted by mysterious aspects of her first marriage, and when Robert’s brother Henry dies on his way back from India, a curious young widow appears, claiming his estate yet without any clear proof that the pair were married. Poor, exhausted Jane, worked to the bone, is drawn into the deceptions upstairs, obliged to spy on the widow and deliver clandestine letters when Mina’s history threatens to emerge. Brightwell deftly juxtaposes the parallel worlds of servants and masters and points out their curious interdependence. Convoluted plot threads are finally resolved as the widow makes good her escape; Mina’s past rises up to claim her; and Jane is saved by the love of a good fellow servant.
Slightly too much plot, but a fresh and capable first venture.