Dilly Court offers a complicated tale of a young girl born into poverty in the 1800s who suffers from the lack of agency this involves. While it could easily have become a tragic melodrama, that is not Sarah’s way. Despite her circumstances, which offer a nod to Charles Dickens and the horrid conditions suffered by the poor, Sarah retains a sense of herself as an individual. This initially harms her as she gains the attention of the workhouse master and his wife, who find her personhood an affront to their plans to profit from those placed in their care.
Sarah was raised by a loving mother and the random involvement of the actors in the theater where her mother worked as a cleaner. She’s eloquent and thoughtful even at a young age, facts that serve her poorly in the workhouse, but allow her to recognize the good in those few who are not there for profit or so beaten down that they don’t truly exist.
While Sarah’s nature doesn’t change much throughout the story, which follows a solid chunk of her life through tragedy and better moments, that solidity of character is what makes her a delight to read. How she responds to her circumstances, whether good or bad, and what she does in the face of adversity, gives the story a sense of adventure despite all the tragedy and almost constant danger. Sarah is a perceptive girl. She sees the good in people, but only when there is good to be seen, and she acts on that perception even when the person in question will not or cannot see that aspect of their own character.
She makes many more friends than enemies, even of those who should have stood against her as she attempts to navigate a life where nothing good lasts long because the workhouse master and his wife refuse to let what they see as an affront go. On the very first day at the workhouse, Mrs. Trigg declares Sarah the Devil’s daughter, and that focused ire cannot be appeased even long after Sarah passes out of their hands because the Triggs blame every downturn in their own lives to Sarah rather than seeing their own choices as the cause.
The sense of historical period and the lives of the lower class in the 1800s is strong and compelling. This is not a modern tale, but one seeped in the period where it is set. It’s also not so much a tale of the poor girl becoming queen as Sarah’s circumstances improve but her social position does not. Neither is it a love story, though that element develops once Sarah reaches a mature age. Though Sarah is more often driven than the driver throughout, what makes the book a worthwhile read is how she reacts to what circumstances and the villains force on her, finding connection and hope where others would be crushed. She has a strong character, a firm work ethic, and a loyalty that works to create the same in those around her, whether her one friend in the workhouse or those she meets once free of that place.
The Workhouse Girl offers a wonderful cast of characters who are not all as steadfast in their purpose as the villains but who learn and change throughout, even Sarah, though her change is more a matter of age than character. I wholeheartedly recommend this novel to those who enjoy walking in the footsteps of a broader collection of people and social positions than often found in the focus on the wealthy or noble classes.
P.S. I received this title from the publisher through NetGalley in return for an honest review.