Jackie French writes marvelous commercial historical fiction, with protagonists who are active participants in their lives and the world around them. Her stories always feature intriguing snippets from history:
The incidents in my books are based on actual people, historical events and attitudes that are often not widely known. That is why I write about them…Sometimes fiction is a gentler way of presenting those harder times of history, as well as celebrating the good.Author’s note, Becoming Mrs Mulberry
Becoming Mrs Mulberry is an example of the many reasons why Ms French is an Australian best-selling author. She has a way of imparting historical information in a way that illuminates rather than bogs down the story.
It’s a big book, with several big themes: Australia’s mixed record on dealing with issues such as gender equality, treatment of people with disabilities, and the sad fate of so many soldiers returning from WWI. It is also a plea for us to become more attuned to our natural environment, which is under such severe threat today.
The main protagonist, Agnes, is in the midst of medical studies at Edinburgh University, when the war and its aftermath requires her to put her dreams of becoming a doctor on hold. She experiences eye-watering levels of abuse and discrimination both during her studies (much of it meted out by male fellow students) and after it. Any so-called ‘post feminists’ should read this book.
Despairing of her ability to make a difference for the endless line of soldiers with horrifying injuries that she nurses during the war in Europe, she is given a sage piece of advice by her Matron:
Just do the next right thing, and then the next. Put a thousand crumbs together and you make a cake.Becoming Mrs Mulberry pp225-226
Straight after the war, her ‘next right thing’ sees her marrying the severely shell-shocked brother of her close friend, in order to rescue him from being declared mentally incompetent and being confined to an asylum. This is how she becomes the Mrs Mulberry of the novel’s title.
Her new husband is very wealthy and she uses this money to provide respite, care and refuge from some of society’s outcasts, suffering war injuries or disabilities from accidents or illnesses. Coincidentally, the place where she does this is on her husband’s Blue Mountains property, in a fictional location that the author placed not too far from my home.
Then she comes across a young child in a situation of terrible abuse and vulnerability – and her life develops an unexpected trajectory.
Through it all, there is a tender shoot of love and care which grows as the story progresses:
Her sense of loss seeped away under the hush of trees. Trees had patience and so must she, as their roots wound deep into the ground and their leaves slowly burgeoned to the sky. Here, on a highland ridge, she could see trees shaped by wind and snow, none of which was within their control, and yet they managed beauty nonetheless: even greater loveliness from fate’s twisting of their trunks and branches.Becoming Mrs Mulberry pp124-125
This is a sweeping, heartfelt story that will appeal to readers who love their historical fiction to actually mean something.
Becoming Mrs Mulberry is published by HQ Fiction in March 2023.
My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.