It is 1923 and a country is in mourning. Thousands of husbands, fathers, sons and sweethearts were lost in the war, millions more returned home wounded and forever changed.
Beatrice Cade is an orphan, unmarried and childless. London is full of invisible women who struggle to find somewhere to work through their grief. But Bea is determined to make a new life for herself. She takes a room in a Bloomsbury ladies’ club and a job in the City. Just when her new world is taking shape, a fleeting encounter threatens to ruin everything.
Kate Ryan is an ordinary wife and mother. Following the end of the war, she has managed to build an enviable life with her husband and young daughter. To anyone looking in from the outside, they seem like a normal, happy family. But when two policemen knock on her door one morning and threaten to destroy the facade Kate has created, she knows what she has to do to protect the people she loves. And suddenly, two women who never should have met are connected for ever . . .
I can’t say enough great things about this incredible novel, but I’m going to try and do it justice. It’s a historical mystery, extraordinarily clever psychologically and made me think about feminism, sisterhood and the difference between what society expects women’s lives to look like and the life decisions we make for ourselves. Flint has told her story through the eyes of the Kate and Bea, two women who are strangers, but connected by one man. Bea was an orphan and is now an unmarried woman in her late thirties. She’s the book-keeper for a firm in London who has pretty much resigned herself to being a career girl and living in a woman’s hostel. All this changes when she meets the handsome and charming Tom Ryan, a salesman at her firm. Bea struggles to believe that this man, with his movie star looks, would be interested in a woman like her. She expects him to chat up the young women, who have noticed him and are giggling, but he makes a point of stopping at her desk. He comments on her name, telling her that Beatrice was the great love of a poet. Bea is smitten and agrees to meet him, despite the fact that he is married. She is mentally aware of his wife’s presence, the third person always standing between them. Despite this, will Bea allow herself to succumb to Tom’s advances and can it end any other way but heartbreak or disaster?
Flint’s setting is vitally important to this story. We can draw parallels between contemporary women and these two characters, but they are also very much products of their time. This is a post-war Britain and everything has been changed by a war so terrible it is known as the Great War. Men have come home destroyed by what they’ve experienced physically and mentally.
‘There were empty sleeves and eye patches that one must not stare at or draw attention to; there were crutches and bandages and dreadful ridges of thick pink skin; and sometimes there was simply an absence in a face where a man had left a part of himself – the brightest and most vital part – in a muddy foreign field.’
Whereas women could be said to have flourished. Yes, there’s the ever present weight of grief and loss, but some of the changes in women’s lives had been positive. Both Kate and Bea are working women, and represent the many women who became wage earners during the Great War, plugging the gap in the employment market as more men joined up to fight. This was liberating for many women, who were then reluctant to move back to the domestic sphere after the war. There were also a shortage of men in the marriage market, some women had lost their fiancé or husband but there were others who came of age just after WW1 for whom eligible men were scarce. Having the option of throwing themselves into an absorbing career instead proved very fulfilling for some, like Morley’s office manager who clearly expected Bea to be left on the shelf and had marked her out as a potential replacement. Women being outside the domestic sphere meant that the pre-war rigid barriers of social class started to be breached. Different classes of people mingled in work places and matches that would have been impossible a few years before became more common. Bea still longs for love, but as her personal life becomes complicated and painful she does muse on what she has lost. As a single working woman she had women friends and lived in a vibrant city where she could take herself to the theatre, to a museum or for tea with friends. Now that she can see the reality of a relationship, she wonders was she better off before?
Bea knows there is a difference between herself and the girls who have young men to wait for. These are carefree girls, full of life, ‘neat and slender – sleek hair, dainty ankles, flickering glances and quicksilver laughter.’ She’s of a different sort, in looks and class. Where her married sister Jane looks on career girls as modern, smart and fashionable Bea looks a little closer and sees
‘frizzed modern hairstyles that they’d seen in advertisements and that didn’t suit them; women with lines around their eyes that no amount of cream or powder would cover. And women who, despite the well-cut clothes, had red rough hands and nails cut to the quick.’
Bea is well aware she is plain and there are references to Jane Eyre in the way she sees herself. After talking to Tom, she sees herself in the bathroom mirror and is shocked at the difference between her tumultuous, rich inner life and this pale, plain outside. She feels such overwhelming emotions that she disassociates from her rather normal body; ‘how can all these feelings come out of this plain face and body?’ It immediately took me to the conversation between Jane and Rochester when she challenges him for underestimating her:
‘Do you think, because I am poor, obscure, plain, and little, I am soulless and heartless? You think wrong! I have as much soul as you, and full as much heart!…’
In fact Tom uses the comparison to flatter her, praising her strength and courage in living such a lonely life. Patronised by her sister too, she is full of anger inside and expresses the creeping fear that not only is she without a husband, she’s noticed younger, smarter girls starting to come into the workplace. Bright, young things who might be better at her job and quicker. She admits to being afraid of the day when the axe falls, her clothes become shabbier and she gets more desperate. Yet is it any better to be at the mercy of a man? As Kate’s story unfolds we can see that the state of being a wife, is just as unstable and scary, because where Bea has all the responsibility and makes decisions for herself Kate is powerless, entirely dependent on the whims of her husband. A husband who is capable of terrible things. The more Kate starts to learn about her husband, tiny jigsaw pieces start to slot together in her head. She has to admit to herself that she has always known there was something hidden underneath:
‘Hadn’t I known – hadn’t I always known – that he had something terrible inside him, something that lay rotting under the smooth surface of our normal life? I saw glimpses of it sometimes. I thought of his face as he persuaded me, sweet-talked me, into doing things I did not want to do. I thought of how dirty, how shamed, I felt afterwards.’
Set in the 1920’s, this story is based on the true case of Emily Kaye and her married lover Herbert Mahon. The novel’s aim was to give voice to Mahon’s wife and so Kate’s voice came to life, creating a brilliant interplay between her narration and Bea’s. I loved how well the pace was controlled, from relatively slow at the beginning to a breakneck pace towards the end as Kate makes sense of what has happened and holds the key to solve the mystery. I loved how the author showed us the truth of contemporary attitudes to women, that a man can do something terrible, but it will always be the woman’s fault. How Bea is simply disregarded as shameless, getting old and desperate, brazen and responsible for enticing Tom, despite him being married. It’s quite shocking, but then when I thought about our tabloid’s attitudes to women, I realised that women are judged every day for their appearance, their sexuality, their life choices and if ever there is a marital affair in the papers the ‘other woman’ is always blamed. It’s scary to think how little some people’s attitudes have changed, but thank goodness we can earn for ourselves, own property and have bank accounts. I loved the sense of sisterhood the author brings into the story and it made me think about how it’s the women in my life who have held me up when I couldn’t manage alone. I was on tenterhooks wondering whether Kate would realise that to choose the sisterhood is to change things for her own daughter. To make a decision towards a better world for women. This book was a brilliant piece of historical fiction, an addictive mystery that stirred up the emotions and had me completely hooked. As soon as I’d finished, I wanted to read it again.
Published by Picador 23rd February 2023
Meet The Author
Emma Flint was born and grew up in Newcastle upon Tyne. She graduated from the University of St Andrews with an MA in English Language and Literature, and later completed a novel-writing course at the Faber Academy. She lives and works in London.
Since childhood, she has been drawn to true-crime stories, developing an encyclopaedic knowledge of real-life murder cases from the early 20th century. Her first novel, Little Deaths, was longlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction, for the Desmond Elliott Prize, for the Crime Writers’ Association Gold Dagger Award, and for The Guardian’s Not the Booker Prize.
Other Women is her second novel.