REVIEW: The Bookseller’s Wife (The Chiswell Street Chronicles, Vol 1) by Jane Davis

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Books have been her only solace.

Now they’re about to change her life.

London, 1775: The only surviving child of six, Dorcas Turton should have been heiress to a powerful family name. But after her mother’s untimely death, she is stunned by the discovery that her father’s compulsive gambling has brought them close to ruin. With the threat of debtor’s prison looming large, she must employ all her ingenuity to keep their creditors at bay.

Fortunately, ingenuity is something Dorcas is not short of. An avid reader, novels have taught her the lessons her governess failed to. Forsaking hopes of marriage and children, she opens a day-school for girls. But unbeknown to Dorcas, her father has not given up his extravagant ways. When bailiffs come pounding on the door, their only option is to take in lodgers.

The arrival of larger-than-life James Lackington and his wife Nancy breathes new life into the diminished household. Mr Lackington aspires to be a bookseller, and what James Lackington sets out to do, he tends to achieve. Soon Dorcas discovers she is not only guilty of envying Mrs Lackington her strong simple faith and adaptable nature. Loath though she is to admit it, she begins to envy her Mr Lackington…

Based on a true story, Jane Davis’s latest historical novel is for book-lovers everywhere, delivering unforgettable characters, a portrait of Georgian London on the brink of change, and a love song to the life-changing power of the written word.

Dear Ms. Davis, 

Books, reading books, loving books, talking about books, and getting books into the hands of others who might love them is something we love to do here. Books were something that Dorcas Turton had always loved. She used to love to sit in the library of her family’s Islington home, running her hands over the leather binding of the many books there. 

But her family, which had inherited wealth that should have seen them through generations, were forced to “retrench” once, and then again, and finally (in the middle of the night) again to the small house in London where her mother died and her father gambled away the rest of the money. 

Now having taken in sewing and teaching the daughters of “up and comers” to better themselves, Dorcas desperately ducks and dodges to keep the wolves at bay. When her father has accumulated yet another debt, and the family has nothing left that Dorcas can bear to pawn, she puts her foot down and rents out a room. Mr. and Mrs. Lackington seem nice even if her father barely hides his sneers that they are working class. Mr. Lackington is unlike any man Dorcas has met. He moves easily among all classes, adores his wife, and (luckily for Dorcas) appears at almost every moment when Dorcas needs moral support. 

Just when things are maybe looking up Dorcas’s father dies and the Lackinton’s move to live above the bookshop they’ve opened only for Mrs. Lackington to die. Not wasting much time, James Lackington, who remember had adored his wife, takes the initiative and proposes to Dorcas telling her that he knows he’s the type of man who needs a strong wife and that his beloved Nancy had urged him to remarry. 

Five years later, Dorcas and James are expanding the business and ready to try all kinds of new innovations to increase sales. Then the Gordon Riots break out around them.      

I could easily identify with Dorcas’s love of books and reading. I could also, to a lesser degree, understand her frustration with how her family’s circumstances had been increasingly diminished due to her father. My mother kept things together (as James Lackington’s mother had also done) but my family also had a time when we scaled down. I too felt frustration and anger at my father’s lack of ability or effort to support his family. I however, had more options than did Dorcas even if she was educated above the average for a woman in her time. 

One thing I think readers will agree on is supporting Dorcas’s efforts to educate the teens and tweens in her day school. She knows that most of them will be willing to sink into the proscribed roles for women but for the ones who want more, Dorcas wants them to have female role models and knowledge. One of the invented characters in the story is Patience Brine, a fourteen year old who had to begin work three years prior and whom Dorcas takes under her wing as Patience steps off the stage in London. Patience is awesome. 

James Lackington befuddles Dorcas a little. He’s a shoemaker who loves to read and wants to open a bookstore. His father’s family also had some means but James had to pull himself up by his own bootstraps, was taught to read at age fourteen, and happily fell in with a family who enjoyed discussing books around the dinner table. His first wife’s death has turned James from espousing Methodism as strongly as he did and made him willing to read beyond religious tracts. James is a born entrepreneur and willing to take gambles to improve himself and his store. He also appreciates Dorcas’s intelligence and cheerfully acknowledges how much he depends on her. 

The book is divided into two sections though, in my opinion, the second seems more like two different parts. The little details of eighteenth century life are enough to thoroughly ground the book without overwhelming it. The omniscient voice POV put me right in the middle of the action so that I could feel Dorcas’s fear at who was pounding on the door, her frantic worry as she searched for a way to pay the creditors, her sadness when her father died so soon after she realized the “gift” he had given her. In a darkly humorous scene, we see that funeral home directors have tried for centuries to guilt families into paying for more expensive services than they can afford. 

The beginning of the “five years later” part two was my favorite bit of the book. James has big ideas for the store and brainstorms ways and means to increase their foot traffic, turn their stock over, and get the word out that theirs is the best place to come and buy books. Dorcas and James work well together though he does have a tendency to keep some plans up his sleeve. Then came the last bit of the story which diverts into the horrific Gordon Riots of 1780. I can understand that with the Lackinton’s both living near and having their shop close to a major area where rioting occurred it would have affected them in real life, but I wasn’t sure why the book needed such a deep dive into it. 

The characters in the book are well rounded and realized. I didn’t think that they were just twenty-first century people in hooped skirts and powdered wigs. The marriage that Dorcas and James make is truly a marriage of convenience but it’s one that quickly moves into a marriage of equals and deep affection. I enjoyed my time among them and I’m looking forward to seeing what will happen next to all the people in the story. B



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