The Victory Garden is a historical novel by mystery author Rhys Bowen, set during World War I. Unusually for her, it is not really a mystery, even though it contains an element of mystery which is not introduced until relatively late in the book. It tells the story of Emily Bryce, a young woman from an upper-class family in the west of England. Emily wants to contribute to the war effort, but after her brother is killed in the early days of World War I, her parents, terrified of losing her, forbid her to go to the front as a nurse like her best friend Clarissa. While volunteering at a convalescent home near her family’s house, Emily meets Robbie, a handsome Australian pilot. Emily finds Robbie’s disregard for the British class system and the rules of society refreshing. She soon falls in love with him and longs to escape her stultifying life and go to Australia with him after the war is over, even though her parents make it clear that they disapprove of Robbie as a husband for her.
In order to be near Robbie, who has been moved to a different convalescent home, Emily volunteers as a land girl, working on a farm while the men are away at war. Her parents are horrified that their daughter is doing manual labor, and threaten to cut her off if she continues as a land girl. But she enjoys the work and insists on staying. Just before Robbie is called back to the war, Emily becomes secretly engaged to him, and they spend the night together. Emily becomes friends with the other land girls, who all come from different backgrounds. She and two of her colleagues are sent to the estate of Lady Charlton, a reclusive old woman, to tend her garden. It is there that Emily discovers she is pregnant. Soon she receives the news that Robbie has been killed in action. Pregnant and unmarried, having lost the man she loves, and cut off from her family, Emily is desperate, but she finds comfort in the friendship of the other land girls, and in her work in the garden. Since no one in the nearby village knows her, Emily pretends to be a war widow. The villagers, who have all lost someone in the war, immediately accept her into their society. She becomes friends with Lady Charlton, who is one of the few people who know the full truth about who she is.
Emily moves into an abandoned cottage near Lady Charlton’s house and restores the place, even though the villagers tell her it is cursed: everyone who has lived there has come to a bad end. She finds the diary of Susan Olgilvy, a young schoolmistress who lived in the cottage sixty years earlier. This young woman had become an expert on herbal medicine, using herbs grown in her garden and recipes from an earlier diary, of a 17th century medicine woman. Emily decides to grow herbs and make herbal remedies as Susan had done earlier. Eventually, her medicine saves the villagers from the Spanish influenza epidemic. As she continues reading Susan’s diary, Emily discovers that Susan had been in love with a married man whose wife died in mysterious circumstances, and that Susan was accused of murder. The villagers tell Emily that a woman who lived in her cottage had been hanged. Could this have been Susan? Emily wants to find out. But soon the evil housekeeper at Lady Charlton’s house and the spiteful vicar’s wife spread rumors about Emily, which nearly spell disaster for her. Can she escape the fate of the other women who have lived in her cottage?
The Victory Garden is a beautifully-written novel, and Bowen vividly conveys the details of life in rural England during World War I. Fans of Bowen’s other books should be aware that this is not a mystery, even though this should not stop them from reading it. Although it is not really a mystery, it is very suspenseful as Emily tries to discover what happened to Susan, and to escape what she fears might have been her fate. But above all, the novel is a celebration of friendship between women of various backgrounds, and of healing after terrible loss. Emily’s restoration of the garden is a brilliant metaphor for what is happening in her own life, as she seeks to heal her own wounds. I highly recommend The Victory Garden to anyone who loves historical fiction.
The Victory Garden is available from the Browsing Collection of the Shapiro Undergraduate Library.