Rose Rivers is an upper class thirteen year old girl in Victorian London. She is the second oldest of seven children with a father who is a well-known artist and an invalid mother, whose illness is never explained and who may suffer most from self-indulgence. Her sister Beth has what we would now call Autistic Spectrum Disorder, but which was then of course undiagnosed.
Rose has always aspired to an education. Her father is a strong advocate of education for girls, but her mother is firmly opposed. Rose is also a passionate and skilled artist. The novel asks whether Rose can achieve either of her ambitions, and what affect her pursuit of those ambitions will have on her family.
Rose’s father has a young male protégé named Paris Walker. Paris comes to the Rivers house to make drawings of Mrs Rivers. Rose likes Paris and he takes an interest in her artistic work. Rival affections for this young man engender dangerous conflicts in the family circle. At the same time Mr Rivers hires a specialist nurse to look after Beth, since caring for her is too much of a burden on the family nurse. It seems this carer, Nurse Budd, achieves some success in caring for Beth. But it emerges only gradually at what alarming price this progress is achieved.
We know very well that Wilson has the ability to construct a convincing portrait of a family life, into which she injects with her usual skill a couple of serious crises. On this occasion she also explores how the Victorians responded to a problem of mental health which is taxing enough even in a more enlightened age. Beth’s health problems and Budd’s misguided attempts to deal with them are depicted with chilling precision. Wilson is expert at conjuring up dark villains. Nurse Budd is a strong candidate to be the most villainous of them all. Sharratt’s illustrations work in the usual close and powerful harmony with Wilson’s text. Theirs is indeed a partnership to be treasured.