Author Sheila Newberry was only four when her great-grandmother Emma Meehan died, but the memory of this remarkably resilient woman has stayed with her down the years.
And now, in a warm-hearted and gritty saga, inspired by Emma’s life and times in 19th century England, she gives her family’s much-loved and admired matriarch ‘a voice,’ and delivers a moving tribute which, she hopes, captures Emma’s ‘essence.’
As much a love letter to her family history as a compelling saga, The Forget-Me-Not Girl introduces us to Emma Wright, who was born in 1840 to a farming family near the market town of Wymondham, Norfolk. She was a bright and ambitious girl, ‘a real survivor’ who found love and happiness with a handsome London firefighter but also endured terrible heartbreak and loss.
Growing up with her brothers and sisters on a farm in the beautiful Norfolk countryside, life seems idyllic for young Emma but little does she know things are about to change.
The Swing Riots of the 1830s – riots precipitated by the onset of mechanisation, and reduced wages and work for agricultural labourers – had led to her father, Tobias, losing half of his workforce at the rented Browick Bottom Farm.
And the family is dealt a further blow when their mother, Sophia, dies from consumption but the resilient Emma, always ‘hungry for knowledge.’ is determined to fulfil her dream of becoming a teacher at the nearby school.
All her plans are torn apart when Tobias dies and, with six months’ rent owing, the family are turned out of their home. Facing destitution, the younger children are placed in the local workhouse and Emma finds a job as an assistant cook at the ‘big house’ in Wymondham.
Emma makes such a success of her work there that she gains a new post as cook/housekeeper with a wealthy London family at their grand house in Kensington. And it is in the local park that she meets the dashing Thomas Frederick (‘TF’) Meehan who is working as a city fireman after several years with the Royal Navy and fighting in the far-off Crimean War.
When Emma and TF, who tells her he fell in love with her ‘at first sight,’ marry and her own family starts to grow, so does her happiness… but then tragedy strikes and Emma faces turning her life around once again. Can she finally find her happily ever after?
The Forget-Me-Not Girl is a drama-packed and emotional saga full of nostalgia, warmth and charm, but it also offers a fascinating insight into mid-Victorian Britain as Newberry explores the impact of mechanisation on rural communities, the realities of living in a workhouse and working ‘in service,’ and the experiences of being a ‘boy sailor’ in the Crimean War of the 1850s.
Written with her natural empathy, a personal family link which binds her closely to a cast of diverse characters, and the added bonus of a tasty, authentic recipe for Norfolk Dumplings to enjoy, Newberry’s enchanting and eye-opening story is a wonderfully poignant read for all saga fans.
(Zaffre, paperback, £6.99)