I had always thought of Margaret Irwin as a writer of historical fiction, but when I spotted this book I realised that it was a little different, and I was to discover that she had spun a very different, slightly magical, slightly ghostly, story around a story set back in history.
‘Still She Wished for Company was published in 1924, and it moves between that era and the 1770s, and between two lovely heroines.
Jan Challard was a modern – but not too modern – young woman who lived and worked in 1920s. She liked her life, but she was beginning to find her office job, and the eligible young man who was courting her, just a little bit dull.
A century and a half earlier, Juliana Clare, the youngest daughter of an aristocratic Berkshire family, was finding life a little dull too. She tried to fill the long hours, busying herself in the house and the garden, writing in her journal, but she longed for something to happen, and she knew that something wasn’t marriage to one of the eligible young men that her mother thought were so suitable.
Two charming young ladies, quite alike, and certainly both rather inclined to daydream
Life does change for Juliana when her father dies and her eldest brother, Lucian, returned from a long sojourn abroad, to take his father’s title, his father’s estate, and her father’s position as head of the family.
Lucian was wicked, he was dissipated, and his father thrown him our and to barred him from the house and from contact with his family, and denounce him from his deathbed. In exile Lucian had reached out for everything life had to offer, and it had left him jaded and bored. His family didn’t want him back but Julia, who barely remembered him was curious to meet and talk to her mysterious brother.
She confided in him that she had seen ghosts, among them a strangely dressed young woman, maybe a girl dressed up as a boy.
That was Jan, who had visited the grand old country house when she was on holiday. Jan had seen Juliana too, and thought that she must be a ghost. Though she looked too content, too alive, to be a ghost.
Lucian recognised Juliana’s description of Jane; he knew that she was the intriguing woman she had seen, maybe in a dream, maybe in an altered state, maybe though some supernatural power. He realises that Juliana might be offering his only chance of seeing her again. And he is desperate to seize that chance …..
That’s as much as I should say about the story – except that what remains is fascinating, unexpected, and exactly right.
This is a very small book, and it simply tells the story of its twin heroines, without elaborating, without backstories, and without the stories of others.
Nearly all of the story belongs to Juliana, and it was so very effective. Margaret Irwin so clearly knew and loved the 18th century, and she pulled out just the right details, had just the right lightness of touch, to bring Julian and her world to life, and to make them intriguing.
Jan was very much a supporting player and, though she did nothing that was really wrong, I sensed that Margaret Irwin was less confident writing about her own age, and that the earlier era was her natural home. The 1770s are not my favourite period, but she made me feel at home there and made me understand what it was that she loved.
She handles her unusual story – the drama, the mystery, and the romance – beautifully, raising the intensity and then bringing her story to a quiet, and beautifully judged, conclusion.
It has a certain simplicity – and I’ve noticed that it has been published as a Peacock book, for young adults – but it has more than enough about it to appeal to a rather more grown-up reader. The kind of reader who likes history, romance, and a dash of something mystical.
The 17th century story on its own would have been lovely, but the magical, ghostly, wrapping turned this book into something very special.
And now, I think, I’m going to have to find a copy of my own, to replace the book I have to give back to the library …..