Sixteen-year-old Grace Granville is in her last few months at boarding school in Brighton. For years she has dreamed of becoming a successful dress designer owning her own fashion house and most of her spare time is spent sketching ladies outfits but her father, wealthy and very strict Lord Granville, dismisses her ambitions as frivolous nonsense and wants to groom her to become a good wife to someone of his choosing.
In the last holiday before she leaves school she travels north to Lancashire with her room mate and best friend Katy to stay with Katy’s family, parents who are far more relaxed and friendly than her own parents. While there she and Katy meet up with two young men, Jack and Eddie, to go to a dance – Jack is Katy’s cousin and five years older but while Katy’s family are quite well-off and live in a big house with servants Jack and his father live in a small two-up, two-down terraced and work down a coal pit. Before long Grace and Jack are in love and want to be together but the only way Grace can stop her father marrying her off to someone else is for her to lie to her parents that she’s pregnant. This results in her father banishing her from home without a penny to her name, though she’s welcomed into Katy’s family and soon settles in there.
Eventually Grace and Jack marry, with the wedding paid for by her surrogate ‘parents’, and she settles into the hard life of a coal miner’s wife, living in a small newly-built terraced house near the coal pit and next door to Nancy and John who become good friends. A few years later Grace and Nancy become young widows when both Jack and John are killed in an accident at the pit ; Grace by then has three children, the youngest a baby only two weeks old, and with no income other than the pin money she earns by making dresses for various neighbours she swallows her pride and contacts her parents for help. That help comes at a great price though – they will give her enough money to buy a small shop and flat in London’s East End so she can start her own business but she has to agree to her son, 9-year old George, going to live with her parents so her father can groom him to one day take over the running of the family estate. She doesn’t want to give George up but with threats that the authorities will be called and her daughter and baby will be taken away if she doesn’t agree Grace has no choice – George goes to live with her parents and she and Nancy pack up and go to London to start up a small fashion business.
It doesn’t take long before Grace’s designs become recognised and eventually, with some financial input from a businesswoman who becomes a firm friend, Grace expands the business, gets a large store in Oxford Street, sets up a factory abroad and employs several more staff. There are two things missing from her life though – her younger sister Elizabeth, who she hasn’t seen since before she was made to leave home, and her son George, and though she writes to each of them regularly her letters are always returned unopened, sent back by her parents without her sister or son ever knowing she has tried to contact them. Eventually though, Elizabeth makes contact with Grace and though their first few meetings are strained things do start to get better and Elizabeth says that when she next visits she will bring George, who is by now almost 16 and growing into a fine young man.
At first George thinks like Elizabeth, that Grace abandoned him when he was younger, but after she gives him the bundle of returned letters that she has written to him over the years he realises that wasn’t true and he begins to thaw towards Grace, eventually learning to call her ‘mum’. Unfortunately Grace’s joy at getting her son back is marred by the death of her father and the mental instability of her mother who goes to live with a cousin in Somerset, but then she finds out that Elizabeth is getting married so happily starts designing a wedding dress for the big day. With a successful business, a new man in her life – a French fashion designer who originally came to work for her – and her family and friends around her Grace finally puts the past behind her and begins to look forward to the future.
Published in 2017 House of Grace covers the years 1950 to Christmas Eve 1969 and is the first book in what will be a family trilogy. A real ‘riches-to-rags-to-riches’ story it reminded me very much of Barbara Taylor Bradford’s A Woman Of Substance, and anyone who enjoyed Mr Selfridge and House Of Eliott will probably enjoy reading this. Filled with 1950s/60s nostalgia the era is quite faithfully depicted, from the strict draconian rules of the wealthy upper classes to the poverty and hardship of the coal pit workers and their families. I found it hard though to imagine that even as late as the 1950s young girls were being forced into loveless arranged marriages just to satisfy the whims of their wealthy parents but maybe that’s what wealthy people did, especially if they themselves had been brought up that way.
This is a well researched piece of writing with very believable characters and scenarios which draw the reader into the story ; once I started reading I couldn’t put the book down and read the whole thing in one night, staying up till almost 4am to finish it. The sequel, The Coal Miner’s Son, is to be published in March 2020 and tells the story from the point of view of Grace’s son George ; I enjoyed House of Grace so much that I’m really looking forward to reading its follow-up.
**Sometimes fate works in mysterious ways and it’s through the internet and this blog that I came to be reading House of Grace. Not long ago I got an email notification to approve a comment on my October 2017 post about Bolton’s Palais dance hall ; that comment came in the form of a link to the blog of an American author in which a guest post has been written by the British author of House of Grace. It seems that as a child she spent several years living in Bolton and many of the places she knew back then, including the Palais and other places which are familiar to me, feature in her writing ; the story sounded interesting so I sent for the book from an ebay seller. Although listed as ‘pre-owned’ it’s actually brand new, and in another twist of fate it’s also been signed by the author – it really couldn’t get any better than that.