The English Girl | Katherine Webb | 2016 | Orion Books | 448p | Review copy | Buy the book
It is 1958 and Joan Seabrook is about to fulfil her dream. Although she is about to make a very suitable marriage to Rory, Joan wants nothing more than to explore the Arabian desert, remembering her father’s bedtime stories about its myths and beauty as well as following in the footsteps of her heroine, Maude Vickery, who explored the region, almost losing her life in the process, in the early years of the 20th century. Events are about to take a precipitous turn. Joan’s soldier brother Daniel is stationed in Oman and her honorary uncle Robert Gibson is wazir – foreign minister – to Oman’s Sultan. Rory himself is keen on a visit and so Joan and her fiance arrive at Gibson’s Residency on the edge of the magnificent desert. The fact that the desert is forbidden to foreigners, its remoteness the subject of a civil war, makes it all the more enticing to this young woman who dreams of being the first to climb its mountains and follow in Maude’s footsteps across its formidable dunes.
Maude herself lives close to the Residency. A recluse, living quietly with her slave, dogs and pet gazelle, she has no desire to talk about the past when she made her extraordinary journey across the Empty Quarter of Arabia. But Joan has a way of inspiring others with her spirit, fed by both dreams and determination. Maude is nearing the end of her life and there is one thing that this redoubtable woman must do. But she can’t do it alone. Joan will have to help her and it takes her on a perilous path. But even though Joan is swept along by this thrilling adventure, Maude keeps the truth from her. The consequences of Maude’s plan will be horrendous and that is just as Maude intends. Vengeance is sweet.
The English Girl is such an appealing, evocative read. It presents dual narratives – Joan’s story in the 1950s and Maude’s own experiences in the early 1900s. Both stories are filled with adventure and set against the most stunning backdrop – the dunes and mountains of a great desert, populated by nomads and their camels, trod over by intrepid, idealistic western explorers, ruled by exotic sultans and now fought over by British soldiers and local warriors. As we follow both Maude and Joan across the desert we can almost feel the heat, the thirst, the sand in the eyes and the desperation, as well as the zeal. Above all else, we have the romance of the Arabian desert, the Lawrence of Arabia stark beauty of it all, which never dulls despite its pitiless danger.
There is a cast of characters to become involved with, in both time frames, with some characters appearing in both, altered by what has gone before. But while Maude’s life is one of infamous adventure, Joan is able to compete with it, and she is soon enchanted by the people that she meets, every bit as the scenery, including Maude’s slave, and the young man that Maude urges her to visit in secret. Contrasting with that we’re presented with the British inhabitants of the Residency, including Gibson’s wife who isn’t neglected as such, just under-used by society, as well as the British soldiers brought in to fight such a distant war. And then there’s Rory, Joan’s fiance. The story of Joan and Rory is an important part of the novel but while Rory is, rather predictably, shown as not being the perfect match for Joan, he’s not painted as a demon. Above all else, The English Girl is a warm and sympathetic novel that doesn’t like to blame too harshly.
I thoroughly enjoyed The English Girl. It’s one of those novels you could happily spend a whole day reading. It is light, and archaeology-free (unfortunately), and it does sentamentalise history – particularly the locals – but for me it captures the romance, excitement and thrill of an Edwardian and early 19th-century adventure, in the spirit of Agatha Christie’s archaeological investigations of Mesopotamia and Gertrude Bell’s famous explorations of Mesopotamia and Arabia, a woman who Katherine Webb tells us inspired her creation of Maude. While parts of the novel are idealised and not very likely, others are harsh – there is nowhere to hide when lost in a desert that wants to kill you and that desolation is captured here, as is the triumph of survival.
Above all else, Joan and Maude are both fascinating women. Inevitably in a dual narrative, one story tends to appeal more than the other, and here it is Maude’s tale that drew me in the most – and how could it not? It is a fantastic and shocking story – but the movement between the two drives the pace on and makes this quite a pageturner. The star of The English Girl, though, isn’t Maude, or Joan, or the men they love, it’s Arabia.