Two new sagas put orphans in the spotlight by various authors - book reviews -

The Orphans of Bell Lane
The Orphans of Bell Lane

The plight of orphans in Victorian England takes centre stage in two gritty and gripping new summer sagas that are guaranteed to warm even the hardest of hearts.

The plight of orphans in Victorian England takes centre stage in two gritty and gripping new summer sagas that are guaranteed to warm even the hardest of hearts.

The Orphans of Bell Lane

Ruthie Lewis

In The Orphans of Bell Lane, we meet two young sisters left alone in the world when their parents and brothers died in a cholera epidemic, and struggling to survive amidst the privations of a London workhouse.

The first book in the new The Ragged School series from publisher Zaffre’s much-loved Memory Lane list, this moving tale of hardship and hope is written by Ruthie Lewis, the pseudonym of Marilyn Livingstone and Morgen Witzel, a collaborative Anglo-Canadian husband and wife team of writers and historians who live in Devon.

And the story is made all the more poignant as it has been adapted from the author’s own family history, in particular a grandmother who was born and brought up in a small road in Rotherhithe next to the London Bridge railway line where much of the book is set.

Banished from their home in Rotherhithe to a workhouse in Chelsea in 1849 after their parents and siblings die in a terrible cholera outbreak, ten-year-old Rosa Perrow and her five-year-old sister Grace must find the strength to survive.

Rosa looks out for Grace, protecting her from the dangers and bullies of the workhouse. Grace loves to learn but is not physically strong and Rosa is determined to master a skill or trade so they can leave the workhouse.

Eighteen years later, Rosa is married to bricklayer George Turneur and living back in Rotherhithe with their three young children, while Grace has joined the wealthy Clare family south of the river and is companion to their daughter Mela.

Their tough life at the workhouse ended when they were rescued by an aunt who took them to live with her in Bermondsey, but Rosa is now dying of consumption and her kind but feckless husband is struggling to cope with the children.

On the cusp of beginning a job as a teacher at a girls’ school in Sevenoaks in Kent, Grace must decide whether she can walk away from everything she has worked hard to achieve in order to protect the children Rosa has left behind.

Returning to Bell Lane in Rotherhithe and the gang-ruled streets of south-east London, Grace is determined to build a better future for herself and for the children of Bell Lane, no matter what the cost.

Her first job will be to give them an education, even if that means teaching them in an empty archway under a nearby railway viaduct… but these wild children are desperate and dangerous, and Grace could be putting her life in peril.

Lewis plucks at readers’ heartstrings in this drama-filled story of two sisters whose lives move in two very different directions, one on an upward trajectory to happiness, fulfilment and stability, and the other to hardship, struggle and tragedy.

Grace is an inspirational heroine, choosing to put family first and to take the tougher path in life, however hard that may prove to be. Her desire to help others, and to offer children the opportunity of a better life through education, lies at the heart of the story.

Powerful in its portrayal of the realities of Victorian London, and full of memorable characters from all walks of life, this is an engrossing and heartwarming read for all saga fans.

(Zaffre, paperback, £7.99)

The Foundling School for Girls

Elizabeth Gill

Ruth Dixon has never felt loved by her selfish parents and when her mother walks out of their home on Christmas Eve in 1855, the thirteen-year-old is left at the mercy of her callous and drunken father.

Alone and with no money, she will be forced out on the street at a time when she has never been more in need of help, compassion and friendship.

Prepare for shocking cruelty, the heartbreaking plight of an innocent young girl, and the grim realities of being poor and defenceless in Victorian Britain in the latest moving story from North-East saga queen Elizabeth Gill, bestselling author of Miss Appleby’s Academy and Nobody’s Child.

Born in in Tow Law on the Durham fells, Gill loves her home territory, and her books, which now number over forty, reflect her natural warmth, her affinity with the folk of this tough corner of the country, and her gift for insightful storytelling.

And this atmospheric and emotionally powerful new series about the lost orphans of Durham and the nuns who take them in sees Gill at her very best as we meet a cast of beautifully drawn characters, encounter happiness and despair, hardship and hope, and discover that love is the greatest healer.

After Ruth Dixon’s mother deserts her on Christmas Eve, her quarryman father comes home drunk to their cottage in the wilds of County Durham and commits an unthinkable act. Without money or friends she has nowhere to go, but when he assaults her for a second time, she lashes out at him and takes flight.

Close to death, Ruth is rescued by Jay Gilbraith, a wealthy businessman whose own childhood was spent trying to stay alive on the mean streets of Newcastle and is now determined to help others by opening up a pit and building his own town in the hills.

Helping him in his task are a group of nuns sent from The Daughters of Charity Convent in Newcastle… among them, Sister Madeline (Maddy), a young woman he fell in love with over ten years ago but was rejected as a suitor by her father.

Maddy, who is both caring and practical, helps to provide food and shelter for orphans but she wants to educate them as well to give them a better future, and soon her foundling school for girls is flourishing.

Ruth, meanwhile, comes to see her new friends as family and things are finally looking up, but then a pit accident changes everything, and they all stand to lose something – or someone – they love.

Gill is a warm, compassionate and humane storyteller with an acute awareness of what makes people tick, and this compelling, drama-filled story is full of the wisdom and understanding that has made her such a popular author.

The terrible conditions suffered by homeless and orphaned children in the 19th century spring to life in a hard-hitting story which takes us to the heart of a newly established town in the wild fells of County Durham.

Through the saving graces of businessman Jay, the tender, selfless ministrations of the nuns, and the opportunities for a better future offered by Madeline’s foundling school, children once doomed to poverty and early death are given self-belief and ambition.

Warm-hearted, gritty and enthralling, this is a memorable tale from a master storyteller.

(Quercus, paperback, £6.99)