I had thought it was not possible for The Winter Rose to be a superior book to The Tea Rose (see my review here), but incredibly, it was even better! Trust me, it is not often that I stay up until midnight and then get back up at 3 a.m. because I want to get back to a book! But it was not all straight reading, either: often I had to stop and pace, because I was so nervous about what would happen next!
This historical fiction saga that takes place in the early 1900s in London describes, inter alia, the problems of health care for poor women through the eyes of the protagonist, a woman doctor who struggles for respect because of her gender, and struggles for love because of her profession. It’s a continuation of The Tea Rose (which also kept me up all night reading), but either can be read as a standalone book.
What Donnelly excels at the most, in my opinion, is creating voices – Mattie in A Northern Light is totally different from Andi in Revolution and they even live almost a century apart, and yet Donnelly managed to make each of their voices sound utterly believeable and appropriate for their times. Moreover, they are both fully realized and frankly, unforgettable characters. They are young girls who are believers in dreams, but also determined to ferret out truth and justice. They do so courageously, and passionately. Similarly, Fiona Finnegan in The Tea Rose and India Jones in The Winter Rose are both feisty independent women deeply committed to social justice; who have an unending store of warmth and compassion (once their tempers have been expended); drive; courage; and an enduring capacity for love. But they have quite different and interesting weaknesses. Thus each sounds true to what she is meant to be. Donnelly may believe in strong female characters, but she is not a one-note nor a one-dimensional writer.
As in The Tea Rose, I also loved the male characters, and even missed the ones who died during the first book, because just like in real life, their memories continued to inspire and influence the loved ones they left behind.
This book may astound you as it educates you on the attitudes toward women, the birth process, and women doctors in the early 1900s, and on the crippling poverty that separated the lower class from the elite. Donnelly did a great deal of research to recreate the horrifying attitudes of the time. India, who is a pioneering woman doctor, opts to work in a clinic for poor women in Whitechapel to help “make a difference.” She is initiated into the era’s attitudes the first time she wants to give chloroform to a woman undergoing a painful delivery. Her male superior [sic] cuts her off:
“Thank you, Dr. Jones, but I do not require instruction on anesthesia from my junior. I am well aware of chloral’s properties. Labor pain is Eve’s legacy, and to ameliorate it would be against God’s will. Birth pains are good for women. The build character and inhibit indecent feeling.”
India soon discovers that women were dying during deliveries because the doctors wouldn’t wash their hands between patients, or because their bones were so misshapen from malnutrition that the baby couldn’t come out properly.
India learns even more when she improbably becomes friends with the gangster Sid Malone. He takes her on a tour of Whitechapel to help her see why admonishing women to eat more fruit and vegetables, or to fix porridge for their children, is ridiculous:
“Poor women can’t cook porridge, don’t you know that? Of course you don’t. Because you don’t know shit about the poor. Oh, you talk about them plenty. And you probably talk at them, too. But have you ever talked with them? I don’t think so, because if you had you’d know that porridge has to be boiled. That takes coal, and coal costs money. And if they could afford the expense, they still wouldn’t eat porridge. Put it on any table in Whitechapel and it’ll be thrown straight out the window. It’s too much like skilly, the shit that’s served in the spike. Ever been taken to a workhouse, India? Ever had your kids taken from you? Every last scrap of dignity stripped away? Think you’d ever want to eat what you’d been forced to eat there?”
If they are so short of money, India rails at Sid, why do the men use up precious shillings by stopping off in bars on the way home?
“‘For Christ’s sake, leave it be,’ he said angrily. ‘You don’t know what you’re talking about! Have you ever put in a sixteen-hour day at the docks? Heaving coal or sides of beef in the cold and the rain till you’d thought you’d drop dead? Then gone home to the wife and five kids, all stuffed into one drafty room? Some of them sick, all of them hungry. You have any idea of the desperation in those rooms? Of the anger? Can you blame a man for wanting to forget it all for an hour with a pint or two in a nice warm pub?”
Nevertheless, Sid doesn’t need India to tell him there is a better life somewhere else, doing anything else:
“He wanted to keep walking…, out of this unforgiving city, out of his unforgiving life. He wanted to walk all through the night, then sit… somewhere radiant and beautiful in the morning. By the coast. At the water’s edge. Where the stiff salt breeze would blow away the stench of his sins and the sea would wash him clean.”
As we follow the story of India, and Sid, as well as the characters we met in The Tea Rose, we come to learn just how much it takes to fight poverty and greed and evil, and how difficult it is to keep your faith in yourself and in humanity.
Evaluation: At bottom, this book is all about sin and redemption, and the hard, hard road it takes to get there. And it’s about the force of love that is sometimes all that is left to help push you down that road. But if that love is strong enough, it can get you there, if you just believe in it, and in yourself. It’s a beautiful story, and even after 707 pages, I felt bereft when it ended.
I hope this selection of quotes has given you a flavor of the emotional intensity of Donnelly’s soaring prose. I can’t say enough about the eloquence and grandeur of her books.
Published by Harper Collins, 2006