Rating: 4 out of 5
London, 1926. Evie Gifford, one of the first female lawyers in Britain, is not a woman who lets convention get in her way. She has left her family home following a devastating love affair, much to her mother’s disapproval.
London is tense in the days leading up to the General Strike and Evelyn throws herself into two very different cases – one involving a family with links to the unions and the other a rich man who claims not to be the father of his wife’s child. Evie is confronting the hardest challenge of her career when she is faced with an unexpected proposal – just as her former lover returns.
How can she possibly choose between security with a man she admires and passion for the man who betrayed her?
Thank you to W&N Publishers (Orion Books) for providing a copy of this book for review.
The Woman in the Picture is the latest offering from author Katharine McMahon and I understand it to be a sequel to her 2009 novel, The Crimson Room. I had heard of McMahon before, however this is the first of her novels that I have read.
Set in London in 1926, Evelyn Gifford is one of the city’s few female lawyers, working for Breen & Balcombe Solicitors.
Evelyn revels in her job and finds herself going over and above in her fight for her under-dog clients. I found the work/courtroom scenes to be of particular interest as Evelyn finds herself involved in three very different cases – the trial of a young maid on trial for burning a letter, the murder of a brutal husband by his abused wife and the case of a rich factory-owner’s wife attempting to prove the paternity of her child.
The book is essentially about family issues – her cases center around spousal abuse, adultery, paternity and divorce and her personal life is in a bit of a state of turmoil in respect to her relationships with her mother, her nephew and her romantic life. This makes the story quite personal and very relatable for the reader, whilst allowing the author to interweave that common theme throughout the story.
The tale is set against the chaos and political unrest of the General Strike. This provides an interesting history lesson for the reader as London finds itself caught up in the battle between the workers fighting to prevent pay cuts and to secure better working conditions and the government. Whilst not having first-hand knowledge of that time, I felt that the book provided what is probably a relatively realistic portrayal of the feeling of unrest in London at that time.
The story also tells an interesting tale of the fight for gender equality in the 1920s and the prejudices that women still faced some 40 years following the start of the Suffrage movement. Society was still in the process of gradually changing and the Sex Disqualification Act of 1919 had made it easier for women to go into the legal profession, however that improved freedom for women was not necessarily supported by some professions. I find this period in time particularly interesting since having read The Jazz Files by Fiona Veitch Smith, which is set only 6 years earlier in the midst of the suffragette movement. This period in time is very important in relation to women’s history and whilst I would not particularly regard myself as a feminist, I am a professional woman (a lawyer, in fact) and I think it is important to remember what our ancestors went through to give us the opportunities we take for granted today.
McMahon juggles the numerous plotlines with aplomb, setting a lively pace for the story and creating an interesting and compelling read.
Evelyn is an interesting heroine. A likeable and reliable narrator, professionally she displays a calm and steely personality as she pits herself against chauvinistic views, determined to fulfill her wish to practice law and help people, and yet personally she displays an air of vulnerability and is prone to moments of overthinking. Living with her young nephew Edmund and his unmarried mother, Meredith (the former sweetheart of Evelyn’s brother who was killed in the First World War), Evelyn is flouting her mother’s old-fashion views that Evelyn should be living at home and helping to support the household. Fortunately, her grandmother Clara, a former actress, understands and supports Evelyn’s need for independence.
Whilst unwavering in her determination to retain her independence and practice law, Evelyn does have moments of indecision and vulnerability in her romantic life. She has worked hard to forget the dashing Nicholas Thorne who broke her heart before fleeing to South Africa and his reappearance sets the cat amongst the pigeons, not least because she is becoming closer to her single-minded but inspirational boss, Daniel Breen, the only man to take a chance on employing her. The love story is a convincing tale of heart versus brain and of duty versus passion. I certainly know what choice I wanted Evelyn to make!
I also felt that the supporting characters to be very well thought out. I think McMahon is skilled at developing realistic and rounded characters, with each of the supporting roles add something extra to the story. I particularly liked the breadth of the female characters within the story, from the poor but proud serving girl to Evelyn’s strait-laced mother and from the unwed single mother Meredith to the rich but flaky society lady accused of adultery. McMahon serves up a host of female characters spanning Britain’s social classes and each with distinct and differing principles and characteristics.
The Woman in the Picture is a well-written and interesting novel in which the author has created a window into 1926 and the preconceptions and judgments that women face during those times. The story is nicely paced and engaging, with a well-developed plot and an element of romance that does not overshadow the other plotlines.
This is a standalone novel and does not require the reader to have first read The Crimson Room. However, it probably a nice continuation if you plan on reading both in order. I am now keen to read earlier books which include, amongst others, The Crimson Room, The Alchemist’s Daughter and Richard & Judy Book Club pick, The Rose of Sebastopol.
About the Author
Katharine McMahon studied English and Drama at Bristol University. She has worked as a teacher in schools and universities, as a Royal Literary Fund Fellow supporting student writing, and has run national training courses. She is involved with local theatre and lives with her family in Hertfordshire.
Visit her website at katharinemcmahon.com