Book review: Ravenscliffe by Jane Sanderson

As a new series of ITV’s Downton Abbey grips the nation, Jane Sanderson unearths another rich seam of upstairs/downstairs drama in her second novel set in a Yorkshire mining community.

By Pam Norfolk
Thursday, 11th October 2012, 10:00 am

Ravenscliffe picks up the fascinating events which began in her debut book, Netherwood, and which develop here into an engrossing standalone story of stretched loyalties in a rapidly changing world.

Sanderson is a former BBC radio producer but it is her family roots in Yorkshire that have provided the inspiration and background to this lively and compelling tale of a community facing new realities and challenges in the opening years of the 20th century.

She contrasts the lives of the working folk, whose social and political ambitions are growing, with the wealthy mine owner’s family whose cherished traditions are being undermined both inside and outside their ‘big house.’

This is drama with a gritty northern flavour featuring the slow but sure decline of aristocratic power, the fight for women’s suffrage, the erosion of class differences and the increasing influence of the middle and working classes.

In 1904, Netherwood is a town dominated by its collieries with their muck stacks, headstocks and winding gear. One of the few places for its inhabitants to enjoy fresh air and space to roam is the common, a green area owned, like everything else, by Lord Netherwood.

And it is there that Russian émigré Anna Rabinovich falls in love with Ravenscliffe, a large, detached villa standing empty and unloved. There is something about the solid house that speaks to her and she desperately wants to live there.

Her good friend and local entrepreneur Eve Williams is uncertain about moving from the cramped but happy house they share with their combined family of four children but, as she will soon be getting married, she knows it is the right thing to do.

Eve’s first husband Arthur was killed in a mining accident but she has found love again with Netherwood Hall’s head gardener Daniel MacLeod, and her puddings and pies business is thriving.

As Anna transforms Ravenscliffe into a stylish and comfortable home for them all, tensions start to arise. Eve’s 12-year-old son Seth is rude and withdrawn, and seems determined to find work in the mines against his mother’s wishes.

An attraction is also growing between Anna and local union activist Amos Sykes but the arrival of Eve’s long-lost brother Silas Whittam, a self-confident and hard-nosed businessman, is unsettling the tight-knit community and causing cracks to appear in Anna and Eve’s close friendship.

Meanwhile, at the hall, Lord Netherwood’s feckless heir, Tobias Hoyland, and his American bride-to-be Thea Stirling are stirring up trouble, and the earl’s eldest daughter Henrietta, determined, forceful and argumentative, is asserting her independence in the most disconcerting ways.

Below stairs, the loyal servants strive to preserve the noble family’s dignity and reputation whilst preparing for a visit by Kind Edward VII.

But new ideas and values are threatening to overtake the quiet mining town...

Sanderson’s vivid and colourful Yorkshire saga combines excellent historical detail with a rich cast of characters, an engaging plot and some down-to-earth northern humour.

This is a story that could run and run...

(Sphere, paperback, £6.99)