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Friday, 6 December 2019

‘A Taste for Nightshade’ by Martine Bailey

Published by Thomas Dunne Books,
12 January 2016.
ISBN: 978-1-25125005692-4 (HB)
(First published in 2015 as
The Penny Heart)

Manchester, 1787, with the Industrial Revolution just starting and mills and factories being built everywhere. Mary Jebb, a youthful prostitute and thief, tricks two young men, Michael and Peter Croxon, out of a £1.00 banknote. They catch her and despite her pleas for mercy she finds herself in Newgate in London and being tried for theft – at the time a hanging offence. Michael is particularly vengeful and gives evidence against her. But at literally the last moment, while in front of the gallows and a baying crowd, her sentence is reduced to transportation to Botany Bay in Australia for seven years. Not that that is particularly welcome to Mary and she vows vengeance on both Michael Croxon and Charlie and on her ‘mobsman’ Charlie Trebizond who had promised to not just free her from the gallows but to ensure her acquittal. So off Mary goes to Australia and a nightmare life, since she, like other women transported to the far side of the world, is there purely to provide sexual relief for the thousands of men transported to this arid wilderness. But Mary, although down, is certainly not out. 

Meanwhile, another young woman, Grace Moore, marries Michael Croxon, at first thinking that he loves her as much as she loves him. All too soon, once they are married and Grace’s fortune becomes the property of her husband, she realises that he never loved her and had only been interested in her money with which he plans to build a cotton-spinning mill. He installs her in a manor-house, Delafosse Hall, which, although large and stately, is very neglected with only one elderly servant. So, Grace, hoping to make the best of a bad situation and to kindle some affection in her husband’s heart towards her, hires a cook/housekeeper, Peg Blissett, who seems to be just the person to make it all right. But the reader knows, which Grace does not, that her apparent saviour is in fact Mary Jebb who has escaped from her transportation and has returned to England to wreak vengeance on the various people who have wronged her, particularly Michael Croxon. She knows that she can trade on Grace’s naïve good nature to accomplish this and enrich herself at the same time.

But does she succeed? This is an enthralling tale with suspense on every page. Mary may be a criminal through-and-through but one has to admire her courage and determination. The appalling circumstances of women transported to Australia are strongly depicted. Meanwhile the gentle Grace arouses our sympathy and the reader can only hope she will escape the trap she has fallen into. And an extra touch are the authentic eighteenth century recipes included in the book – not only is Mary an accomplished and determined con woman but also an excellent cook. But can her recipes be altogether trusted? Note the title of this book!

I do heartily recommend this book.
Reviewer: Radmila May

Martine Bailey entered cookery contest with no idea it would lead to a life-changing obsession with French cuisine. As an amateur cook, Martine won the Merchant Gourmet Recipe Challenge and was a former UK Dessert Champion, cooking at Le Meurice in Paris. Inspired by eighteenth-century household books of recipes, An Appetite for Violets invites readers to feast on the past as a sharp-witted young cook is taken on a mysterious trip to Italy. In pursuit of authenticity Martine studied with food historian Ivan Day and experienced Georgian food and fashion at firsthand with an historic re-enactment society. Martine lives in Cheshire, England and Auckland, New Zealand. She is married with one son.  The Almanack is her latest book. Published in January 2019. 

Radmila May was born in the U.S. but has lived in the U.K. since she was seven apart from seven years in The Hague. She read law at university but did not go into practice. Instead she worked for many years for a firm of law publishers and still does occasional work for them including taking part in a substantial revision and updating of her late husband’s legal practitioners’ work on Criminal Evidence published late 2015. She has also contributed short stories with a distinctly criminal flavour to two of the Oxford Stories anthologies published by Oxpens Press – a third story is to be published shortly in another Oxford Stories anthology – and is now concentrating on her own writing.

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