In Yours from the Tower, Sally Nicholls has once again transformed her meticulous historical research about the lives of women into a lively and gripping work of fiction. This epistolary novel is set a couple of decades before her previous two full-length novels (The Silent Stars Go By and Things a Bright Girl Can Do), at the end of the 19th century, and follows the travails of three former schoolfriends who, aged seventeen, are embarking on their adult lives in wildly different situations: Sophia is tagging along with her aunt and cousins as a ‘poor relation’ for a Season in London, knowing that she must make an advantageous marriage in order to support her younger siblings; Polly is back home with her parents in Liverpool and determined to make her mark at the orphanage where she is working as a teacher; and Tirzah is dying of boredom in Scotland, where she is living as her grandmother’s unpaid companion, convinced she will ‘die a virgin‘. Over the course of the novel, they exchange letters on all subjects, from Sophia’s uninspiring choice of suitors, to Polly’s intrepid efforts to track down the father of three brothers left in the orphanage, to Tirzah’s increasingly desperate escape attempts.
I devoured this novel: it is brilliantly constructed and Nicholls makes tantalising use of the epistolary form by interweaving different plot strands in order to keep us interested. There is plenty of romance and lots of wit and humour, as, without ever patronising them, Nicholls has great fun describing some of her young heroines’ harebrained schemes. However, this is also a profoundly moving read which confronts many of the darker realities of life over a century ago, especially through Polly’s descriptions of the orphanage and Tirzah’s quest to find out the truth about her mother. I found myself caring deeply about all three of the main characters and hoping they would each find the happiness they deserve. (I don’t want to give away whether they all do, but I will say that I found the ending satisfying without being at all contrived – another impressive feat of plotting.)
It is great to have an epistolary novel of this quality for young adults, given the importance of this genre in the history of the novel, and of women’s writing in particular. Nicholls shows what a readable form it can be: the different voices leap off the page, and manage both to feel totally authentic to their time period but also to connect powerfully with young readers today. Although many of the issues depicted belong firmly to the past – for instance, the marriage market, or the condition of orphanages – they connect with themes which are timeless: family, love and, above all, female friendship.
This will doubtless be a popular choice with secondary-aged readers who enjoy period dramas such as Downton Abbey and Bridgerton, and it may well inspire them to read other novels in this genre – Nicholls offers some excellent suggestions in her Acknowledgements – as well as exploring some of the historical topics depicted and reflecting on some of the comparisons and contrasts with today.
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