In a disinterring of the societal and political atmospheres that shape the lives of people, the story centres around Bess Hardimon and Sarah Beckett, born over a century apart and both eking out careers in education.
Bess Hardimon battles against restrictive Victorian values as the headmistress of Priors Heath on the Greater London border. She refashions the school in the face of opposition from its governors who view intellectual stimulation of young middle-class women as ill-advised and are opposed to the admittance of girls from trade backgrounds. Bess, consumed by duty to her school, forfeits personal fulfilment.
Over a century later Sarah Beckett attends Priors Heath as an ambitious, hardworking student. Bess Hardimon’s portrait hangs in the entrance hall; Sarah, from the solid aspiring classes, forms a friendship with the wild and provocative Imogen and is infatuated with her confidence and sophisticated upper class background while Imogen secretly envies Sarah’s safe and cosy family life.
McMahon deftly juxtaposes these two very different worlds in convincingly descriptive prose.
Where Bess Hardimon was trapped by duty and compromise in 19th century male-dominated society, Sarah finds her life confined by wifedom and motherhood as she leaves teaching to raise children and support her husband’s successful ex-pat career, returning in her 40s and threatening her marriage.
And this is the kernel of McMahon’s story.
The novel is a satisfying multi-nuanced treatment of what women want and the sacrifices they make to achieve.