Set during the reign of Queen Victoria, this is a novel based on an incredible chance meeting. Isabella Waverley pauses to help a woman on a London Street and it changes her whole life. She offers comfort as it becomes clear this woman is dying, In her last moments the woman passes Isabella a letter. It’s an offer of employment in the kitchens of Buckingham Palace and coincidentally Isabella is a novice chef. This letter is the difference between continuing life as a servant
and living her dreams. Isabella decides to become Helen Barton from Yorkshire and starts work in the Queen’s household, the Queen enjoys her culinary creations so much, Bella is chosen to accompany the Queen on a trip to Nice.
Just as she is enjoying this new life there is a threat of blackmail and even worse, after eating one of Bella’s dishes a member of Queen Victoria’s retinue becomes ill and dies. Now there will be an investigation into the death and Bella is terrified of being accused of poisoning. At worst, if found guilty she would be executed. At best the investigation might uncover who she really is and her new life would come crashing down.
Once I’d suspended disbelief about the coincidental set up at the beginning of the novel I did start to enjoy the story. I loved the geographical and historical detail, and I could see the book appealing to people who enjoy Downton Abbey or the series Victoria. It has the same charm and a great cast of characters within the palace, including a lustful prince and the very contrary Queen herself. I also enjoyed the historical detail around the food – the fashionable dishes, how they were prepared and Bella’s free reign to create with no concern about cost. She is allowed, even expected, to be extravagant, When the court moves to a luxury hotel in Nice, the author gives us a wonderful sense of the French Riviera and Bella’s joy at being able to experience it.
We learn that Bella wasn’t born into a lowly position. Her father was a gentleman, but lost his money and status to drink. The freedoms the palace staff can enjoy in Nice allow Bella to experience things she has never dared imagine, The mystery of the poisoned dinner guest continues throughout with the usual twists and turns but it isn’t really the main point of the novel for me, I didn’t know that Queen Victoria made summer trips to Nice and Bowen has taken this piece of history and brought it to life. Bella is a likeable heroine and I enjoyed her tenacity in overcoming the suspicion of the Male kitchen workers. They are not used to a woman in their ranks but through her knowledge and passion for food she becomes part of their family. This is a well researched piece of historical fiction that is pure escapism.
Thank you to NetGalley for an ARC of this novel in exchange for an honest review.