The legend of Nelson

The Liar’s Daughter
Laurie Graham
Quercus, €18.75;Kindle, €8.14.

Since her ninth novel, Gone with the Windsors, Laurie Graham has based each of her books on an historical event. Her 13th, A Humble Companion, looked into the court of King George III though the eyes of a companion to Princess Sophie.

And her new novel, The Liar’s Daughter, compares the myth of Lord Nelson to the reality.

The narrator Anne Prunty believes she is the daughter of Lord Nelson. Her mother has always told her so, and has recounted tales of her time on The Victory at the Battle of Trafalgar. Taken to sea as a sailmaker, she said she was Nelson’s mistress, and was present at his death. Fond of the drink, Anne’s mother wasn’t known for telling the truth, but the details in this particular story never changed.

So starts Anne’s lifelong obsession. Determined to verify the story, she talks to survivors of the battle; she visit’s Nelson’s tomb in St Paul’s Cathedral, talks to biographers, and hunts down Horatia, the daughter Nelson ‘adopted’ with Lady Hamilton.

Her quest forms the backdrop for the narrative of a remarkable woman, who never let convention stand in her way.

Rescued from near prostitution, and educated by a cobbler with a pioneering spirit, Anne moves to Deptford as companion to Mrs Moody, a hypochondriac. Leaving that post, she works in a dispensary, continuing to work after marriage to Archie, a doctor, and the birth of her two children.

When the Crimean War breaks out, Anne’s daughter Pru takes up the story. A trained nurse, she goes out to Turkey, even though Florence Nightingale has turned her down because she is not enough of a lady. Her voice, although informative, is less engaging than her mother’s, but the tone picks up again when Anne joins her daughter in Turkey, providing comfort for the troops.

This magical book doesn’t conform to any genre; and is all the better for it. It gives the reader a feel for the period, touching on the plague, and Queen Victoria’s accession to the throne, without bogging the narrative down in historical detail.

There are some lovely touches; like the time a flock of geese, waddling along the road, delay a stagecoach. And she gives the reader a real sense of the atmosphere of war.

“Feelings run high in close quarters and times of danger. You make vows of comradeship with people you’ll cheerfully strangle as soon as there’s a ceasefire and your wits return.”

In all this is a tenderly-told tale, which holds the attention from the start to the finish. Anne Prunty is an irrepressible heroine, both feisty and fearless.

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