Book review: Netherwood by Jane Sanderson

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If you need a fix between episodes of ITV’s Downton Abbey series, steep yourself in Jane Sanderson’s absorbing and classy ‘big house’ saga.

It has all the same ingredients – history, ambition, romance and tragedy – but with the unusual bonus of perfectly cooked meat pies!

Debut author Sanderson brings to life all the drudgery, dreams and drama of early 20th century society in a brilliantly entertaining saga that moves from the mines, mean streets and mansions of Yorkshire to the smart townhouses of fashionable London.

Her gritty, descriptive and engaging novel features a wide cast of upstairs/downstairs characters whose concerns and ambitions reflect perfectly the class conflict and political changes that were already making waves in the early Edwardian period.

In Yorkshire in 1904, the beautiful, battling Eve Williams is about to discover just how the other half really live.

Above stairs, Lord Hoyland keeps his considerable fortune ticking over with the profits from his three coal mines.

It’s just as well the coal is of the highest quality as the upkeep of Netherwood Hall, his splendid estate on the outskirts of town, doesn’t come cheap.

And that’s not to mention the cost of keeping his wife and daughters in the latest fashions, and keeping the heir to the Hoyland wealth, the charming but feckless Tobias, out of trouble.

Below stairs, Eve is the wife of pitman Arthur, one of Lord Hoyland’s most trusted employees.

When her ordered existence amid the terraced miners’ houses is brought crashing down by the twin arrivals of tragedy and charity, Eve must look to her own self-sufficiency and baking talents to provide for her three young children.

And it’s then that ‘‘upstairs’ and ‘downstairs’ collide in truly dramatic fashion...

Central to Sanderson’s story are three bold female characters. Eve is a feisty, funny working class woman whose bravery, determination and entrepreneurial talents mark her out as the novel’s shining star.

Best supporting roles are undoubtedly Anna, a delightfully enterprising Russian migrant who moves into Eve’s home as a much-needed lodger, and Henrietta, Lord Hoyland’s forward-thinking and intelligent daughter who puts her frivolous brother Toby to shame.

Excellent historical detail and the sheer cussedness of the Yorkshire cast also play important parts in a story that combines serious issues like working conditions and employment rights with all the fun of down-to-earth northern humour.

Well researched and full of sharp contrasts, the good news is that Sanderson is already hard at work on the sequel...

(Sphere, paperback, £6.99)