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