I picked up The Telling by Jo Baker because she has a knack for writing historical novels. The first book of hers that I read was Longbourn. For those of you who don’t know, Longbourn was the home of Elizabeth Bennet of Pride and Prejudice fame. It’s about the servants who worked for the Bennett family which allowed me to once again to visit this much beloved family.
While The Telling does spend some time in circa 1838, it also moves back and forth in time to the present day as it details the trials of two women who lived in the same house at different times in history.
While we never really know what time period we’re in until we get into each chapter, and much of what is going on is veiled in secrecy, “the telling” of each woman’s story is slowly peeled away as the story moves forward and we are compelled to uncover the mystery.
In the present is Rachel who is having a difficult time dealing with her mother’s death. While taking care of emptying out the cottage her mother hoped to retire in, Rachel hears noises that she can’t quite place, and wonders if she’s going crazy. Yet somehow, she feels the need to unravel the mystery before she returns to her husband and child.
Lizzy, at 19 in 1838, is struggling to find her place in the world. An avid reader, she is intrigued with the man Robert Moore, whom her parents let her room to, leaving her to sleep on the cold hard floor by the fire, much like Cinderella. And much like Cinderella, Robert shows her a world she never knew, but this time through the books that he purchases and shares with the community. It sounds innocent enough to our eyes and ears, but in 1838 poor people were taught only to read the scripture and not to write or think for themselves — that poor people should know their place. In fact, people could be put in jail for encouraging others to question the status quo.
I had never heard of such a thing. In today’s world we take for granted that information is available to us – perhaps even more than we can deal with at times. To consider that you could be put in prison for expanding your mind, or transported to another country is unconscionable.
However, as I read, I kept wondering how these two women were connected. And why was Lizzy’s ghost still lingering in the house? At first I thought it was the house that connected them, but there is something more. And that I don’t want to divulge and spoil the story for you. It is enough to say that while these two women were dealing with some difficult changes in their lives, they each share one important thing.
The characters of Rachel and Lizzy were both interesting, each in their own time, and the device of alternating their chapters helped to create suspense because we had to wait to find out what happened to each of them as their individual stories unfolded. I also paid attention to how Jo Baker describes her scenes in precise efficient detail. She shared an unknown part of history in the Chartist movement — a movement to gain political rights and influence for the working class — that I found interesting, but she also shared a common struggle that every person in the world can relate to. While the women were different, they each wanted more for themselves and struggled to find their footing in a changing world.