Winnie Frolik lives in Pittsburgh, but her writing heart is firmly planted across the pond in the small British villages favored by Jane Austen and Emily Bronte. Like Austen and Bronte, Frolik sets her first novel, Sarah Crow, in the 1800s, when women were very much dependent upon others for their safety and welfare.
Sarah Pole is only 12 when her parents and younger brother die from fever. Along with her father, the Rev. Richard Pole, her mother, Hannah, and brother, William, 7, Sarah lived in the vicarage in Walnut Hill. Besides losing her family, Sarah loses her home. Even at such a young age, Sarah’s plain looks and quiet demeanor do not work in her favor. Her mother’s two surviving siblings, Harold and Penelope, come to the funeral, but neither wants to provide Sarah with a place to live. They do come up with a plan: enrolling Sarah in a boarding school where she can acquire the education necessary to become a governess. After an uncomfortable coach ride, Sarah arrives at the seaside town of Weberley and becomes a student at the Parsley School.
The main narrative is told in the third person, while excerpts from Sarah’s journal allow us to hear her voice. It’s in these pages that we learn Sarah’s secret. Suffering traumatic loss at such a young age, she finds a way to channel her grief. Using a razor, pins, or even a knife, Sarah begins cutting herself. Self-harm soon becomes a ritual with implements kept in a small leather pouch. “It hurt, but the pain was somewhat a relief…It calmed me,” Sarah writes. Much is written these days about young girls who cut themselves. The popular 2003 film, Thirteen, focused on Tracy (Evan Rachel Wood) who deals with her depression by cutting herself. But that method of self-harm, although well hidden, existed long ago. Frolik doesn’t shy away from bringing us inside Sarah’s mind as she struggles with the choices she is making, The descriptions at times are graphic and might upset some readers. Yet these scenes, while providing much needed insight, do not dominate the novel.
Sarah has no illusions about her prospects. Unlike the two friends she makes at Parsley – Geraldine and Clara – Sarah has little hope that she will marry. Sarah knows that she’s not a great beauty, even mocking her own looks, particularly her hook nose, by comparing herself to a black crow. But she’s smart, enjoys working with children, and is a talented artist. She needs all of those attributes when she accepts a governess position with the Mandeville family at Bromley Hall. The Parsley School’s Mrs. Gates has no reservation recommending Sarah for the job, knowing she will be an excellent teacher for the Mandeville’s two young daughters, Violet and Elinor. What Mrs. Gates doesn’t share with Sarah is that the family asked for a plain girl, one who would not tempt Hugh and Charles, Mr. Mandeville’s older sons from his first marriage.
Sarah has few encounters with Hugh and Charles, but their sister, Alicia, takes an immediate dislike to the new governess and asks her stepmother to fire her. Mrs. Mandeville, pleased with the progress her two daughters are making with Sarah’s lessons, refuses. Mrs. Mandeville values Sarah’s help in another area – visiting the poor tenants on Bromley’s property. Sarah actually enjoys visiting with families like the Riggs, bringing them food and recommending the younger girls for positions in the mansion’s kitchen.
Alicia barely registers on Sarah’s radar until the arrival of a new local doctor, Robert Healey. Never having been attracted to a man before, Sarah’s feelings for Dr. Healey take her by surprise. She’s not surprised, however, that he is besotted with the very beautiful, yet shallow, Alicia. Sarah does find herself spending time with the doctor, however, when he’s called to administer bleedings to Mr. Mandeville. The sight of blood unnerves the servants, but Sarah is used to seeing blood and assists Dr. Healey with the professionalism of a nurse.
When Rufus Clarkson, a newspaperman from London, falls from the top of a coach and suffers a concussion, he’s brought to Bromley to recover with Dr. Healey making occasional visits. Although Sarah is not attracted to Rufus, their conversations will lead to her leaving Bromley and moving to London where she hopes to make a living as an artist.
Descriptions of Sarah’s environment, whether the thatched roof cottages in the small village of Greenberry, near the Mandeville estate, or the gritty streets of London that teem with all manner of humanity, bring the scenes alive throughout the novel.
Sarah is not the typical Austen heroine, like Elizabeth and Jane Bennet, of Pride and Prejudice, whose beauty and social skills paved their way to marriage. Sarah’s a misfit but she’s also smart, talented, and a survivor. Frolik does an excellent job of showing Sarah’s evolution, from a lonely and scared child, to a confident and determined young woman. She’s easy to root for as she makes this transition.
We also root for Frolik as she embarks on what can only be a very successful career as a novelist. We look forward to book number two.
Author photo: Anita Buzzy Prentis