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BOOK REVIEW: The Lily and the Rose by Jackie French

| 27 August 2018 | Reply

BOOK REVIEW: The Lily and the Rose by Jackie French

HarperCollins
March 2018
Paperback, $29.99
Reviewed by Natalie Salvo

Fiction / Romance / Historical Romance

7/10

Beloved Australian author, Jackie French is a firm believer in the idea that history explains why our world is the way it is. She has written hundreds of books before, but it was her research for A Rose for the Anzac Boys that inspired her to write her latest historical fiction trilogy. The Lily and the Rose is the sequel to Miss Lily’s Lovely Ladies. It isn’t designed to be a stand-alone read but is the second story, which propels things forward and leaves enough mystery and narrative threads open for them to be explored and resolved in her next instalment.

You had to shut your eyes to manage to smile in England now. Even Sophie, who all her life had stubbornly seen as much as she could. Even she could not bear to look too hard. How could you bear to see what you could not help? Or at least not enough to make a difference?

Sophie Higgs, the determined and formidable corned beef heiress, returns once again as our heroine. We initially met her as a student of Miss Lily’s school of charm and deportment in the first novel. She was also a rose of No Man’s Land because she helped tend to the men injured at battle.

‘Sophie Higgs was there, in the middle of it all, not to fight but to pick up what was left of us afterwards. We’d go through weeks or months at the front but girls like my Midge and Sophie Higgs went through the whole sodding war. They called them the roses of No Man’s Land and, by God, and that’s not blasphemy,’ with a quick nod at the startled vicar, ‘but it’s the truth, they were our roses there.
‘Any man who came back home from the war owes his home coming to women like my wife and Sophie Higgs. Any woman whose husband, sweetheart, or son came home should get down on her knees and thank these women, because without them we’d have lost the war by the first Christmas, and lost our lives, and even lost the will to live.’
He paused again and looked around the hall. ‘I’m going to vote for her. I don’t give a fig for women’s rights. I just know that women like Miss Higgs and my missus are the best that life can give us. And if any man here only sees a skirt, and not a heart more courageous than any man’s, I’ve known then he’s a fool.’
He stopped, kissed Sophie’s cheek, then left the stage.

It is commendable of French to highlight and explore this forgotten chapter in history. Too often the accounts from this period focus on men’s contributions to the war effort and completely ignore or downplay the role of women. In some respects, this idea of women forging ahead, finding themselves and having their own career in a man’s world shares things in common with Natasha Lester’s work, so there should be some cross-over for the fans of these two Australian authors.

In The Lily and the Rose, Sophie Higgs grapples with the affections and love of three very different men. There is John, a returned and damaged ex-serviceman who builds crosses to commemorate the lives of those he took away in battle. There’s the aristocratic, Count von Houffenhausen who has lost his estate and his old life thanks to the war. But perhaps the most intriguing is Sophie’s relationship with Miss Lily who is also known as Nigel Vaile, the Earl of Shillings. French is delving into some fascinating territory here, by exploring a transgendered character during the aftermath of the First World War, including his/her life and relationships.

‘If you are asking would I turn my body fully into a woman’s if I could, then no.’ He pulled her down again, fitted her against him. ‘With my body, I thee worship,’ he quoted from the marriage service. ‘I love women’s bodies. I love your body. I love loving it this way, with mine. But when I look into a mirror…’ he shook his head. ‘It has never seemed as if the reflection is truly mine.’
‘Except when you are Miss Lily,’ she said quietly.

French begins every one of her chapters with a quote. These are useful and help set the scene. They also tie this story back with her previous novel. Very often the quotes here are from Miss Lily’s lessons and the advice she gave her charges – like how to win a man’s heart and stomach – previously and this is the main currency that these young women had at the particular point in time.

It is easy for me to sit here, comfortably giving you advice. It is harder to remember advice, even one’s own, when one is in pain, either of the body or the heart. But that is when you need to find your wisdom most. ~ Miss Lily, 1914

While Sophie is a character who is clever and kind, she’s also very well-written and developed. She is very human and believable and this means she doesn’t always fit into the neat and tidy box of a “good” heroine. Instead, she has moments where she is selfish and other unsavoury characteristics shine through.

Sophie stood still, glad he [her father] could not see her face. Miss Thwaites had said he’d had a stroke, but ‘only a small one’. She had said ‘… his heart is troubling him’ but not how much. She had said he was tired and missing her…
And she had not listened. She, who had been so proud of finding out who she was and what she wanted, had not cared to truly think of those she loved most. They had always been there, everlasting, ever stable, and would be whenever she was ready to come home. But they were not. Miss Thwaites was growing old. He father, possibly, no, probably was dying.

This novel has a lot of things going on in it – with a transgendered character, Sophie’s three love interests, and her adventures overseas to save a German princess to name a few. Some readers may find this is all a bit too much to swallow and a bit unfocused at times. There is such a thing as French being too ambitious with her ideas and tackling a little too much. There is also the possibility that some readers will be a little lost if they haven’t read the previous book. But fans of French’s novels, including those who have read the first instalment in the trilogy and A Rose for the Anzac Boys will enjoy some of the details here, especially when French brings back some characters for cameos.

The Lily and the Rose is a multifaceted story that examines the dynamics of friendship, love, gender, and politics in a world undergoing swift and monumental changes. There is a blurring of the lines between the gender roles, women’s suffrage in England in 1918 and the subsequent effects of women wanting to run for parliament, and the aftermath and shock of the end of World War I are all fascinating touch points that are covered here, even if they aren’t always fully resolved. In The Lily and the Rose, French doesn’t guild the lily when it comes to her female characters. Instead she attempts to correct the history books and acknowledge the fine work and contributions of the strong and independent women who came before us with a novel that is a delightful love letter and testament to that strength and conviction of spirit.

Natalie Salvo

Category: Book Reviews, Other Reviews

About the Author ()

Natalie Salvo is a foodie and writer from Sydney. You can find her digging around in second hand book shops or submerged in vinyl crates at good record stores. Her websites are: http://nataliesalvo.wordpress.com and www.myshitdate.com

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