Books and reading,  History

Remembering the heroines: ‘Legends of the Lost Lilies’ by Jackie French

Firstly: don’t let the luscious cover of Jackie French’s latest historical fiction fool you. It may look like a classic historical romance, but there is enough danger, intrigue, secrets and twisty bits to satisfy any lover of thriller novels. No car chase scenes, but I say thank goodness for that!

Secondly, a disclaimer: Legends of the Lost Lilies is book number five (and the final) in the Miss Lily series, which collectively cover the immediate pre-WWI period to the immediate post-WWII period (and a later epilogue). I had previously read only the first, Miss Lily’s Lovely Ladies, and there is a lot that happens in the intervening three episodes – so I was left a little bewildered by some of the story in this latest book. Ms French skilfully weaves in essential bits of backstory and introduces characters well (of course she does, she is an expert storyteller), but I do think it best to come to this one having read at least one or two of the previous titles. I intend to go back and fill in some gaps when I can.

The characters from the first Miss Lily appear in this one, too, though of course much has happened to them all over two world wars and everything in between. I don’t want to say much about the plot of book five, because it would be too easy to give spoilers. One thing I will say about the plot is that, in her Author’s Note, Ms French assures us that every character and incident in the book is based on people and events that really existed, individually or as composites. That was good to read because there are some ‘larger than life’ characters and some moments when I wondered at a plot turn. Shades of Margaret Atwood, who based every event in her groundbreaking novel The Handmaid’s Tale’ on things that had really happened somewhere in the world.

I’d like to comment on the themes of the five Miss Lily books. In her Author’s Note, Jackie French says:

The series shows how women’s views of themselves changed and widened over the twentieth century. It is also about the women men did not see, or rather, did see, but then for a multitude of reasons omitted from history.

Legends of the Lost Lilies p.431

The novel also explores the complexities of life, of relationships, the tragedy and pointlessness of war. A strong underlying theme is the nature of love (in all its forms) and loyalty, kindness and forgiveness as tools for peace, and loss as the inevitable other side of love.

A lovely quote towards the end of the book combines many of these themes. Observing the young women of her family in the 1970’s, Sophia reflects on how the women of her generation and earlier generations prepared their path:

They think they invented it all, and that is how it should be, for pride in what they have achieved will take them further.
Yet their grandmothers and great-grandmothers and every generation of women before them were there at every major moment in history, though the books rarely record us.

Legends of the Lost Lilies p.428

In amongst the drama, the intelligence activities, the horror of wartime, the losses, pain and grief, this is the shining thread that runs through the Miss Lily narrative: women and their networks, friendships, strengths. The series will be enjoyed by historical fiction fans who love reading about the heroic women of our collective past.

Legends of the Lost Lilies will be published by HarperCollins Australia in April 2021.
My thanks to the publishers for a copy to review.

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