Reviewed by Emma Crowley
1914. While their men fight in France, at home in Britain women are finally seizing the opportunity to make a difference . . .
Maggie and her new friends Annie, Irene and Sarah come from very different backgrounds, but they've got one thing in common: they've all signed up for the Women Police Volunteers. They can't wait to show the men just what they're made of.
But soon, Maggie realises she's in over her head. Hiding her involvement with the WPV from her tyrannous father is becoming ever more difficult, and when she bumps into an old acquaintance with a big chip on his shoulder, the dangers of her new life become all too clear . . .
As Maggie and the girls work together to find their feet on the beat, will their friendship get her through the darkest of times?
Many thanks to Hodder and Stoughton for the copy of The Bobby Girls to review and to Sharon for having my review on the blog.
The Bobby Girls by Johanna Bell is the first in a new series following the origins of Britain's first ever female police officers. To be honest, the topic of female police officers was not something that I had given much thought to as I assumed they had been around for a long time. But you soon come to remember and understand even more how women had been so restricted in the past and that the things that we take for granted today were hard fought for by many brave and courageous women not so long ago. This book was definitely an eye opener as it made me more aware of an aspect of history that I knew nothing about and the story between the covers was gritty, realistic, engaging and clearly so very well researched. The author's infectious enthusiasm for her subject matter radiated from the pages and this energy transferred to the reader. I found myself really interested in discovering more about the Women Police Volunteers – how and why they came about and the difficulties and challenges they encountered in the face of steep opposition from many corners.
Johanna Bell was inspired to write this book by her own personal family experiences and I think when you can personally relate to the topic you are writing about it really comes across in the writing as you become inspired to learn as much as you can to make sure the message transfers well across to the reader. Johanna certainly succeeded in this and she really demonstrated how war affects not only those on the front line but also their families and communities back at home and how the women cope is nothing short of admirable and brave in the toughest of times. The author built her own stories around historical facts and I thought merging the two was excellent and made overall for a gratifying and entertaining read. The characters are strong and feisty, yet they also have their weakness and there are plenty of life lessons to be learned with friendship, solidarity and teamwork at the core of their working relationship which slowly starts to develop into something more like a sisterhood.
The establishment of the Women's Police Volunteers in 1914 was a real turning point for women's liberation but yet they came up against an awful lot of backlash and negativity but I suppose one has to navigate their way through all of this in order to emerge stronger on the other side and to truly feel like yes we fought for this, we deserve this and now all we went through was more than worth it. Without these powerful and strong women of the time god knows where we would be today. Maggie, Annie and Irene were just examples of many women who did so much at the time but in this book they are the faces of every women that did their bit during the war but also for women's liberation in general. The three throughout the story kept going, they had a goal and were determined to reach it even if they were looked upon with askance.
The prologue was way longer than usual and for one moment I thought the book itself had started until I turned the page and saw chapter one as the heading. But despite its length it did serve a purpose as the prologue introduced us to four women and provided a detailed background on each of them and how they came to be in the position of training to volunteer in the WPV. Sarah, Maggie, Annie and Irene were mentioned and I felt I got to know them very quickly. My only fault though I found with the book in relation to the characters was that Sarah was introduced as a writer for The Vote, a newspaper and for a valid enough reason it soon became apparent that she wouldn't be able to fulfil her training and then go out on the beat. I wanted to know so much more about her but she was gone within a few chapters. I questioned as to her inclusion at all given she was so under utilised and I felt the overall story worked just as well without her featuring at all so why mention her in the first place? I was disappointed she featured so briefly.
But then the attention really focused on Maggie, Irene and Annie. Maggie became the dominant character and I soon came to realise that this book would focus on her with little titbits about Irene and Annie every now and again. They were more like sidekicks to Maggie in this book which makes me think will these women be able to tell their story more prominently in future books? Irene is clearly hiding something from her friends and although the reader is privy to glimpses of this there is definitely a lot more to be learned. As for Annie, I want to get to know her better. She is longing for her fiancée Richard who is abroad fighting but she questions will he be the same man when he returns. Annie seemed a little weak and as if she needed propping up to get through everything but the unit she forms with the other two girls may be enough to see her grow stronger.
Maggie, to me was the star of this book and she had very good storylines throughout. You could really see the development of the character from start to finish and how much she changed over the course of the book. Through new life experiences and working with the WPV, she slowly started to emerge as the new and tenacious young woman who wanted to do her bit for her country but also one who wanted to break free from the confines of her home situation. Maggie may come from an affluent family and may want for nothing but that doesn't mean she was a spoilt little rich girl. In fact nothing could be further from that as Maggie's home life was one of daily fear and terror.
Her father was a tyrant who ruled with an iron fist making her life and that of her mother and brother also a dreadful experience. Maggie believes men like her father are the reason it is essential for women to make a place for themselves in the police force and to do their bit for women's liberation. The idea was the unit working in a voluntary capacity would protect women where possible especially when it came to prostituting themselves with regard to soldiers from abroad or those home on leave. To be honest I found this quite hard to believe that this was occurring and then in turn needed to be monitored and that's how the force came about. It just showed that I knew nothing about this aspect of life during World War One.
Maggie was a brilliant character who showed the reader so many sides. She goes around pretending to her friends and the many people she meets when they receive their placement in a tough area of London that everything is rosy in the garden. But really it's not. She is sneaking out from the house and lying about exactly what she is doing and if is discovered the repercussions and ramifications don't bare thinking about. I thought she was just so strong willed to go for what she firmly wanted and in the process she knew she was helping others as well as herself. He knew deep down that she couldn't go on living under a cloud of danger, threats and harm and as Eddie, her brother, flew the nest to enlist she become even more aware that the job she was secretly doing was very important.
I really loved it when the book moved to Bethnal Green where the girls were stationed. It was so rich in detail and such vivid descriptions of what life was like there and how the three girls had to deal with such varying experiences on a day to day basis. They had a job to do which many opposed but they kept going on their beat determined to make a difference and have some changes put in place. There was a sinister aspect to the storyline which emerged for Maggie and it felt dark and as if we were heading down a very dangerous and sinister road. My heart broke for her but yet she showed her courage, strength and tenacity in the bleakest of times. The journey Maggie was on throughout the book really helped her to grow up and she became so resilient and a person who wanted to be taken seriously that she learned skills to cope with any situations that were thrown at her. Yet she couldn't have done this without Irene and Annie by her side but as I said in the future I want to know more about these two in order to feel the same way about them as I do Maggie because by the end I was deeply invested in her as a character.
The Bobby Girls was a great read and without doubt Johanna Bell is a welcome new addition to the historical fiction saga genre which I love so much. There is a good balance between love, heartbreak, daily dramas and the struggle for the WPV played out against the backdrop of the war along with many life messages to be learnt too. The three young women show how people from all walks of life can be friends and that you can achieve anything you put your mind too no matter what obstacles are thrown in your path. I can't wait for The Bobby Girls Secrets to be published in April to see how the story will continue.
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