Introducing Mrs Hart - with author Sheena Wilkinson
Photo: Sheena Wilkinson and me, Jillian
I had the pleasure of hosting a Reading Group event in Lisburn Road Library recently with the local author Sheena Wilkinson. The groups had read her new adult novel Mrs Hart’s Marriage Bureau in preparation and were intrigued to hear Sheena’s own story as well as hearing about the provenance of the novel itself. After being single for years she got married recently and has moved to Mid Ulster from South Down where she was brought up – apparently there was no ‘Marriage Bureau’ involved in her own relationship though.
The group was fascinated to hear how the story evolved and changed radically during the edits. Her previous novels have been for a younger age group so this is Sheena’s first published adult novel. Set in 1930’s middle England we are introduced to Mrs Hart as she interviews for new staff to help in her agency. April McVey turns up late but is like a breath of fresh air. She is the most suitable candidate, apart from her broad Northern Ireland accent and her distinctive turn of phrase, but her charm wins Mrs Hart over and April finds herself with a new job and looking for new lodgings in a new town.
I listened to this first on audio and the narrators interpretation of April’s accent is striking – anyone from Northern Ireland will recognise the toned down Derry Girls influences and this, combined with Sheena’s use of local phrases which we all know so well, bring a familiarity to the story despite being set across the water. Mrs Harts reaction to some of April’s terminology gives the author an opportunity to explain any which are not obvious – some are self-explanatory though the context may be alien – ‘eejit’ and ‘critter’ can be terms of endearment in April’s world!.
The story follows April as she settles into the job, her enthusiasm resulting in some unfortunate incidents as well as some successful matches but more than this she makes her own mark on those she meets in her new town, none more so than on Fabian, a widower, and his wayward teenage daughter Prudence, as well as Felicity, his sister, who becomes April’s landlady. Alternate points of view from other main characters add a variety of voices and provides an all-round appreciation of the situations described. We hear too, comments from Mrs Hart’s own deceased mother who makes her opinions known at regular intervals – mostly disapproving and judgemental remarks that Mrs Hart has to learn to ignore.
There are a stream of interesting characters, mostly clients of the Bureau, who make appearances throughout adding colour and often humour to April’s world. But this is also a world beginning to be influenced by world events, none more so than the rise of tension in Germany. Felicity has connections there having lived in Bavaria for a time and the ramifications of this have an effect on her which becomes more obvious as the story moves on. The role of women in society is changing and both Felicity and April react against the norms which society would inflict on them, looking forward to a more modern lifestyle .
Felicity herself is single and makes her living writing children’s books – an interesting parallel to Sheena’s own life. I was interested to note that some of the books which April finds on Felicity’s bookshelves are from The Chalet School series- books which many of us devoured years ago and ones which Sheena herself admitted to loving too.
We were excited to hear too that Sheena has written a sequel to this and hope that she gets a book deal to get it published. The characters are so vivid in our minds that we really want to find out what happens to them as time goes on.
Sheena, thank you so much for coming – and if you need any first readers – you know where we are!