Half the World in Winter, is a 2014 historical novel written by British-born Australian author Maggie Joel and is currently her third publication. It follows two grieving families in 1880’s London struggling to come to terms with the loss of a young daughter. Joel, inspired by actual events from the era and old funerary customs, tells a story that is as heartbreaking as it is inspiring with an aim to enlighten whoever reads it.
The first section of the novel focuses on the Jarmyns, a wealthy upper class family that owns a series of railway lines. They are currently in their sixth month of grieving after the death of their much-loved 9-year-old daughter, Sofia, who died an agonizingly prolonged death after her clothes caught fire. Her burns were so severe that she spent her final days in her bed hardly breathing and, unable to ease her suffering, her family waited for her to pass away. As a result, the family are not only grieving but are also in a state of guilt due to their helplessness. Thoughts from her elder sister, Dinah, explained the circumstances of the time.
May slipped into June but the house grew colder. Alone in her room Dinah prayed nightly that her sister would die. And eventually, ten days later, she did.”
The second family, the much poorer Brinklows, have also lost their 9-year-old daughter, Alice, who perished in a train crash that occurred on the rail line owned by the Jarmyns. Alice’s father, Thomas Brinklow, decides to travels to London to seek justice for his daughter as the rail company refuses to acknowledge their negligence of safety procedures. This action could determine the entire fate of the Jarmyn family and their rail line.
As a result of the two sides, there is a massive range of characters throughout the novel. For example, Mrs Logan the house keeper, the two maids that left after they saw the ‘ghost’ of Sofia, Mrs Jarmyn and her extensive social rountines etc… Surprisingly, considering the multiple viewpoint changes, these side events never hinder the story’s progress. In most instances this method doesn’t quite work, but Joels’s clever construction unites all these views into one allowing the reader to experience all angles of the scenario.
The novel is written in an elegant style fitting the era it's portraying. Using Victorian vocabulary to describe the setting and situation makes the style and word choice central to the visualization of the story. To Joel’s credit, this has been executed perfectly and is beautifully written. However, due to the extensive vocabulary, I would only recommend this novel for either avid readers or fans of the genre. Readers who prefer settings in modern times may find the story slow or hard to visualize especially at the beginning when old Victorian grieving customs are the focus and the older cultural aspects of the 1880’s are emphasised the most. In the example below, it is clear that the language back then was very different and if the reader is not familiar with it the may become slightly confusing at times.
I will have the sole, Mrs Logan,” said Mrs Jarmyn, and it seemed inconceivable to Dinah that her mother had just attempted witticism.’
Along with the language, one of the best aspects of the story is its connection to grief and old Victorian culture. For example, in the first six months of grieving mirrors are covered, the whole Jarmyn family wears black and all letters are bordered with a black line that is one inch thick. After that period, the family dresses in purple, the black line becomes navy or maroon and is ½ inch thick and they began to host events. This form of grieving was only a luxury of the upper class, as Brinklow didn’t display any interest in these activities however, he did display the type of mad grief we experience today. The contrast of the two the families ran parallel throughout the whole story, with only their grief to connect them, and the foreign grieving methods truly magnified this fact. For a fan of the genre this novel will be hard to put down.
Half the World in Winter was a beautifully written novel. Ticking all the boxes for a good historical fiction. Maggie Joel’s novels are becoming more popular for good reason and as such, this novel highly recommended to any avid reader who wishes to extend into historical fiction. More of Joel’s work can be found on her website and all her novels can be found on amazon as ebooks.