When Matilda Harper takes on a new job as assistant housemother for a charity, she has no idea what is ahead for her. Leaving her country home in the Lake District, Tilly finds not only satisfaction in her new work, but also new vistas, new experiences, new friendships, and an unexpected enigma. Coming across a notebook hidden deep within her room cupboard, Tilly begins to unearth the tragic story of two very young sisters, separated on the streets of London and never reuniting.
Tilly finds a parallel with the sisters in the diary she reads to her own life, as she struggles with her past and attempts to overcome her own failures.
“I know it will be hard for you to hear this, but I only ask that you try to find it in your heart to forgive your mother. She meant no malice. She struggled to understand her emotions, to understand the space which she and you inhabited…Perhaps we all deserve a second chance? Perhaps we are allowed to make one mistake which can be forgiven?”
This story brings to life the poverty and struggle to survive for many orphans and disabled young girls in London in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Based on the incredible philanthropy of John Groom (in the novel is portrayed as Albert Shaw), the author wanted to illustrate how simple acts of kindness and reaching out to help the unfortunate can make a huge difference to the livelihood of those less fortunate.
“Mr. Shaw saw an opportunity to teach the crippled girls to make the silk flowers themselves and provide housing for them while they were in training. This takes them off the streets and gives them a year-round occupation that isn’t dependent on the seasons, or the weather. They make violets, primroses, and daisies for Mothering Sunday, and buttonholes for the announcers at Christmas.”
Although I enjoyed this book tremendously, I did find the (very few) scenes with imaginary ‘ghost’ (for lack of a better word), a bit overdone. The presumption for a character unable to find peace in the after-life until her sister was found would have been, for me, better left out, but on the whole I enjoyed the story. Tilly’s romantic interest was, as often occurs in fiction, predictable, as was the identity of the financial contributor to the orphanage. I enjoyed learning about an aspect of nineteenth century life in London that previously was unknown to me; the existence of the ‘flower girls’.
I did not know until after I finished reading this book that it was a bestseller. I appreciate that the author could have made such a sad story much more graphic, especially considering the times and the setting, and although she described the hardships and difficult circumstances well, she did so without making the novel lose its appeal.
“It’s a funny thing, grief, isn’t it,” she said. “It brings about a great change in people, makes them forget about the little things they had time to fret and worry over the day before, like the fact that they’ve an ache in their tooth or a missing button or a new hole in their boot or that it’s raining for the fourth day in a row. Grief washes all that away… They tell you it will pass, that there’ll be a day when you wake up and your heart doesn’t ache, a day when you don’t cry, but laugh and smile and remember the person you’ve lost with great fondness. You can’t believe that day will ever come. But it does…”
The author explains her motivation in writing “A Memory of Violets”: “During my research, I was surprised to discover that many of the youngest flower sellers were orphaned, blind or physically disabled in some way. I also discovered the work of Victorian philanthropist, John Groom, who gave these young girls and women a home at his ‘crippleage’ where he taught them how to make artificial flowers. Their work became widely known in London, and eventually led to their involvement in the very first Queen Alexandra Rose Day in June 1912.” (from http://www.shereads.org/when-history-…<