They say that travel broadens the mind, and in The English Girl (review copy from Orion), Katherine Webb shows us what it takes to be a pioneering explorer, the human impact of that and the cost of hidden secrets.
The novel follows Joan Seabrook, a young woman who travels to Oman with her fiance, Rory, in the early 1950s. Joan had grown up fascinated with the Arabian peninsula and takes advantage of a small inheritance following the death of her father to travel to Oman, where her brother is serving in the military. One of the aims of her trip is to meet her heroine, the pioneering explorer Maude Vickery. But while she is there, Joan gets enmeshed in a local rebel insurgency.
Much of The English Girl focuses on Joan. Her trip to Oman forces her to confront family secrets about her much-loved father, her brother and her fiance. She comes to question her planned direction in life: a job at a local museum, marriage and motherhood. But most of all, Joan explores her appetite for adventure, and learns the cost as well as the glamour. She faces life-threatening danger when she becomes involved in a local insurgency.
Far and away the strongest and most interesting part of The English Girl is the character of Maude Vickery. Loosely based on Gertrude Bell, but entirely a fictional character, Maude is introduced to us as a notable Victorian explorer, and the first woman to have crossed the Rub’ al Khali (the Empty Quarter), narrowly beaten only by her friend Nathanial Elliott. Large parts of the novel are flashbacks to Maude’s childhood, her exploits as an explorer and her relationship with Elliott. The novel shows the romance of exploration, while painting an uncompromising picture of the challenges and deprivations Maude faced, and her own personal resilience in overcoming them. We see Maude’s toughness and pioneering spirit turn to bitterness in later life, soured by the social attitudes of the time that make it near-impossible for her to obtain justice for the betrayal she has suffered.
The English Girl is a bit by-the-numbers at times, but it is a great story about adventure, secrets and having the courage to break away from expected paths.
Goodreads rating: 3*