Charlotte Bill is a young woman when she is engaged as the under nurse at York Cottage. She is to help the head nurse with David and Bertie and their soon to be new sibling. She is completely devoted to her small charges, loving them dearly even as she must make them toe the lines that their parents require and she will defend them with the zeal of a mama bear. Although Queen Victoria is still on the throne when the newly christened Mrs. Lala comes to York Cottage, the children are already being groomed for their eventually very public life. Lala must try to balance her own personal desires, including a budding romance with one of the games keepers on the estate, with her duty and care of the growing brood of children, a brood which eventually numbers six. She loves each of the young Yorks but her special child is the last and youngest, Johnnie. He was a frail baby who had a very rough birth, doesn't appear to have the same mental capacity as his siblings, and suffers from epileptic seizures, all of which combine to make him the hidden child, rarely spoken of or seen.
Lala was in fact a real person who did indeed come to serve the Yorks and their children. She was the nanny to two future kings, Edward VIII and George VI, and was privy to the intimacies of family life with two more kings, Edward VII and George V. Told in first person by Charlotte/Lala, the reader is plunged into the personal lives of the royals. She witnesses the bickering and antagonisms between fathers and sons, the distance between spouses, and had a front row seat to British history. But all of these things, even the parts she disapproved of, are told through her loving eyes. Genuinely caring for the children and the trials they faced, Lala recounts tales about the children that correspond closely to adult traits that history has recorded for the more public of the Yorks, tales that might not be terribly flattering but that keep these rarified children human. She chronicles the ups and downs of life in the nursery and to some extent beyond. Woven into the happiness she derives from raising her charges, is the conflict she feels personally and just what sacrifices of her own hopes and dreams she's willing to make in order to continue to care for David, Bertie, Mary, Harry, George, and Johnnie.
The novel is well-researched and offers readers a fascinating glimpse into royal life at the time and all of the conflicts swirling about in the family. Harper has done a good job balancing Charlotte's devotion and her regrets, asking the question whether duty and love for the children should supersede a chance at marriage and her own family. Life in the royal household, and especially Johnnie's so carefully hidden life is brought to life sympathetically and any reader who thrills to news of the royals will be engrossed. The pieces about Lala's own personal life sometimes felt a little contrived or repetitous although they were necessary to show the very real choices she had to make and how those choices shaped her entire life, even once her charges were too old to need a nanny. Life with the royals could certainly be glamorous but there was a heavy cost and readers will come away feeling sorry for the personal cost not only to Lala but to the children who bore the weight of a nation on their small shoulders from the moment of their births. Hopefully things have changed some for the better now but even if they haven't, this is a page turning read that definitely has a place in the beach bags of historical fiction readers this summer.
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Thanks to Trish from TLC Book Tours and the publisher for sending me a copy of this book to review.