No Life for a Lady by Hannah Dolby

Reviewed by Gerard Healy

This is a delightful work by Hannah Dolby, peopled with strong central characters, interesting minor ones and a great sense of humour. Violet Harrison is the very appealing main character in this engaging yarn set in sea-side Hastings, England in 1896. When Violet instigates a search for her missing mother Lily, she finds herself caught in a tangled web involving two private detectives, Mr Knight and Mr Blackthorn.

One of the features explored is the social mores of respectable middle-class society of the day, especially as experienced by our unmarried 28 year-old heroine. With her strong personality, lively wit and wish to use her talents productively, Violet is in constant danger of committing social clangers and being ostracized by polite society.

Her father, who works at a bank, seems a dour, straightlaced character. He is regularly trying to marry Violet off to eligible men. Unknown to him, Violet’s mother has given her an alarming account of what transpires on the wedding night. In another twist, some of the so-called gentlemen callers have gained a different impression of Lily’s daughter through other means.  Basically, Violet wants more to life than a humdrum marriage.

We’re told that it has been ten years since Violet’s mother disappeared, when Violet was 18 years old. I thought ten years seemed a long time for Violet to wait before launching an inquiry. If she were 23 or 24, she would have still been considered an old maid by her peers, but tired enough of waiting (but is that impatience a 21st perspective?).

After she spots an advertisement, Violet approaches private detective Frank Knight. Her initial doubts about his hubristic manner increase when his unorthodox methods unravel.

Meanwhile muscular, handsome furniture salesman and reluctant detective Benjamin Blackthorn gradually wins her trust and affection.  Dolby has a load of fun teasing out their budding relationship after a slow start: And the hairy giant that was Mr Blackthorn had chosen to rescue a seagull over me. (61).

This is a coming-of-age story with naïve, misinformed Violet learning about the world and how she might find a productive role to play. The social tide is against her but she’s plucky and resourceful and we become invested in seeing her succeed.

A notable and pleasing feature was the lively sense of humour sprinkled throughout the text. There’s the back-and-forth quips between Violet and Benjamin, the socially awkward situations she finds herself in and the witty ways she gets away with most of them and also the fictitious charities she pretends to care about (The Society for Alcoholic Animals). There’s also Violet’s naivety about the world and how she finds herself in embarrassing situations. When her newly made friend Maria Monk takes Violet to a secluded beach to witness men swimming naked, her eyes are opened. The proceedings are interrupted by a Mr Crabbins, who tries to get them arrested for indecency.

Dolby has filled out the minor characters with some strong females including worldly-wise Maria Monk, who sends Violet on a wild goose chase into a most inappropriate establishment for a well-brought up young lady. Some interesting consequences follow from that little escapade, including an unlikely friendship with Maria and a new maid in Hildebrand.

Actress Evalina Joyce enters the story late but plays a significant role in the denouement and Violet’s housemaid Edith has an interesting relationship to her female employer. There are two women with their large flotillas of children as well; one is interested in Violet’s father and the other appears connected to Benjamin.

I thought that Dolby had a plotting problem with Lily, the mother. She was supposed to be close and caring to Violet but leaves unannounced. She then makes only a token effort to inform Violet through a third party. Years pass and while Lily has her reasons, she seems uninterested in reconnecting with her daughter. Perhaps I’m missing the strict moral code of the day and its suffocating effect on individuals.

Is the hero a bit too good to be true? He’s strong, gentle, clever, brave, wise, considerate and best of all – Unmarried. Oh well, it is a rom-com after all.

I would definitely recommend this entertaining book to readers and I can see a series looming on the horizon, if sales of this effort go well.

Hannah Dolby, 50, grew up in Edinburgh but now lives in London. Her first job was in the circus but then she trained as a journalist and has worked in PR for many years. No Life for a Lady was dedicated to her mother Ann Grace, an artist, and is her debut novel.

No Life For A Lady


by Hannah Dolby

Head Of Zeus

ISBN: 978 180454 437 2

368pp; $32.99


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