Posted by: Lisa Hill | June 3, 2010

The Second-Last Woman in England, by Maggie Joel

The Second-Last Woman in England is a book I reserved at the library, on a recommendation from somewhere, Jane Cockram at Readings, I think.   Ominously, it turned out to be a ‘Women’s Weekly Great Read’.

It’s the (fictional) story of Mrs Harriet Wallis, who is the second-last woman to be hanged during the bleak post-war period in England.  It starts with the dramatic event, and then fills in the back story of why she did it.

It’s well-researched with a wealth of authentic period detail, but I thought the story suffered from the stereotyping of its characters.  The middle-class parents are out of touch with their feelings, have an empty relationship with each other, care about nothing other than money and appearances, and they treat their nanny as if she is just a bit of wallpaper.  Their children are thoughtless and spoilt.  The working-class orphan who comes to work for them as a nanny comes from a poor but loving family home with genuine family values.  I think we’ve all moved on from this kind of one-dimensional characterisation of the British, haven’t we?

The novel is structured so that the reader has to keep going to sort out the ‘mystery’ but towards the end it loses momentum because you know what’s going to happen anyway.  And at the end I still didn’t know why Jean (the nanny) acted the way she did because we never really got inside her head at all.

Some book groups may enjoy it as a stepping-stone for discussions about capital punishment, premeditated revenge v impulse killings, the need for post-trauma counselling etc.

Maggie Joel has her own website and you can read an extract here.  There’s an enthusiastic review at BookBath.

Author: Maggie Joel
Title: The Second-last Woman in England
Publisher: Murdoch Books, 2010
ISBN: 9781741964820
Source: Casey-Cardinia Library.


  1. Well I won’t be reading this one, but it is interesting to see the topic get some attention. Ruth Ellis (the last woman–not fictional) is the subject of the excellent film, Dance with a Stranger. And then there’s The Last Executioner (inaccurate title but a really great film) about executioner Albert Pierrepoint.


  2. Well, you gave this one short shrift. I don’t think I’ll rush to put this on my TBR pile.


  3. GAS, there’s also a wise and thoughtful short story by Balzac about the impact of execution on the executioner himself. I can’t remember its name right now but will hunt it out if anyone’s interested…


  4. It’s getting a lot of promotion, Sue – and good luck to the author – apart from the stereotyping which got on my wick but probably won’t bother the audience for whom this book is intended, it’s quite well done.
    Oh dear, I think I’m making it worse with faint praise…


  5. Yes I am interested in the name of the story.


  6. […] 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 […]


  7. I thought it was fantastic!


    • Hi Trudy, thanks for dropping by:)
      Tell us why you liked it!


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