Letters from Alice: A tale of hardship and hope. A search for the truth.
By Petrina Banfield
Two women. One secret. Will they be able to keep it under wraps?Tweet
I had never heard of an almoner prior to reading this book, so it was as much a social history lesson as a story for me. It was an easy read, and I finished the book in no time at all.
I found this book very frustrating. I couldn’t decide whether it was a job description for an almoner, recruitment to encourage people to take up the profession or a social history. The characters were wooden and I found it difficult to believe that a young woman would have spoken to a doctor as Alice did. Not the exciting mystery that I expected.
A very easy read and I thoroughly enjoyed it. I enjoyed the story of Alice the ‘almoner’ .. who was a feisty albeit very caring woman working in a social work role within a hospital before the introduction of the welfare state and NHS ... very gritty in parts ... If you like Catherine Cookson and that kind of historical fiction then you will enjoy this.
The term almoner was brand new to me. Apparently these determined and feisty women were the forefront of social workers. They took on the responsibility of seeing that everyone received appropriate medical care in dark days of dirty, slummy, infectious Dickensian England. These women dealt with the bottom strata of society and fought against people freezing and starving, wife beaters, child molesters and woman having no absolutely rights. These were fought day in and day out for the "invisible" folks.
This book told the a story of one of these magnificent women. There is also a bit of a mystery story but it is a weak part of the book. The characters are wooden stereotypes which makes this feel like the a first book that was written in a weekend and thrown out there. It feels a little like book written for teens rather than adults.
Learning about these brave and tireless almoners was reason enough to read this book. We all need to have the occasional reminder of how much was done and sacrificed by the woman of this era so that women today have the rights that we do.
Alice is a newly qualified almoner in 1920s London. An almoner’s job is varied, incorporating many of the functions of a modern-day social worker with additional responsibilities stemming from the fact that there was a lot of poverty and no free health care so provision had to be found for those who could not afford much needed treatment. Most of Alice’s work is with the destitute and struggling, many living in appalling conditions. One of the people she visits is Charlotte, a teenager who is living at home with her parents and becomes pregnant. When she gives birth, a web of lies, secrecy and mystery unfold which need unravelling. Alice, with her dogged determination, is the person to do it, while still diligently performing her other duties. The tension builds and a harrowing tale ensues as the solution gradually becomes clear. Once I had finished the book I discovered that the author had done a huge amount of research into the work of almoners during this period in history and that the stories which she tells are real case studies taken from the archives.
I loved this book and was captivated from Page 1. As the mystery deepened and I got to know Alice better, I couldn’t put it down. It is a fabulous story, well researched and with a lot of historical fact. The characters come alive on the page and are completely believable. I felt like I knew Alice very well indeed by the end and desperately wanted things to turn out OK for her clients who struggled along in their day-to-day lives.
Basically this book is a combination of Call the Midwife and Sherlock Holmes. If you like either or both of them then I recommend that you read this book. It is not a challenging read, but it is historically accurate and well researched.
This was an interesting insight into the role of the almoner in the 1920s - a good social history book inspired by the author's own personal history but there the enjoyment ended - i found the fictional elements of the book lacked credibility - the characters were almost without exception very stereotyped, the plot and subplots were painfully predictable and generally the style of writing was unexceptional. It was a quick read however and my mum really loved it !!
From a reading group member A.E
I confess I knew little about the hospital Almoners and that they were the beginnings of the social work of today. It was very interesting to be reminded of the depravation of those times and the difficulties everyone faced socially and medically.
The book was nicely written giving a good insight into Alice’s character , work and her efforts to help people. By concentrating on certain cases, ie Charlotte, the book was given more depth and interest for the reader. Sad to learn that wealthy men helping by fund raising etc abused their power and molested girls – something we have seen in recent times. The other characters in the book, the doctor, secretary, assistant were all developed slowly with certain twists.
The only complaint being that the narrative’s voice and Alice’s voice mingled together at times causing confusion. A greater distinction between the two would have made a clearer story though I understand that the author was perhaps trying to ensure fluidity and understanding of the service. However it became an irritation in the end.
This book read well and was a window into the early days of hospital almoners. The problems tackled were immense and the reader begins to understand the pressure on hospitals to provide care free to those in need. I wish that the background of Alice had been more fully revealed as she seems to have been a remarkable woman in a demanding job, relying on instinct and innate intelligence. Even more fascinating is that the files at the Royal Free Hospital from the 1920s were available for the author to study so these were authentic case histories.
This is a very interesting book in terms of historical aspects. The book carefully details the daily life of an almoner - who seems to be a cross between a nurse, social worker, fundraiser and debt collector for the hospital. The book is set in the early 20th century and gives a good idea of what life was like then for the poor and ill of London.
I found the writing to be a bit romanticised in parts and the story line, albeit based on actual letters, a bit cliched. It is hard to imagine from our present point of view the realities of the day and how different and difficult things were. I would have liked to have known more details about the main character, Alice, and why she took up this profession, her background, more about her lifestyle, why she would sacrifice so much to take on this role, her romantic life, what makes her tick, etc.
There are a number of stories within the main story - I particularly like the one about the man trying to get free hospital help whilst not disclosing his wealth. Once discovered, the almoner manages to get a very worthy and entertaining outcome.
Whilst this is a highly readable book, for me the story line and characterisation were a bit thin; however a very interesting read historically.