Fleur Beale has always been a strong storyteller but her recent historical novels have been first-rate. A Respectable Girl is set in two very different worlds: mid-Victorian Britain and colonial Taranaki on the brink of war. Hannah, the lively daughter of a raffish remittance man, finds it is not always easy to be a respectable girl, in New Plymouth or in Devon. With a Maori stepmother, Hannah and her twin brother Jamie have an acute insight into the dispute which is engulfing their settlement and splitting their family.
When the twins sail to England in search of information about their mother they learn more than they expected. This shift of focus does split the novel in two, but it also allows Hannah to show resourcefulness and intelligence, as she copes with high society. Her indignant defence of the colonial virtues in an English drawing-room is a delight. As the romantic and legal tangles are sorted out, Hannah finds that her heart and her future belong in New Zealand. Older readers will particularly enjoy the rich historical detail, the range of personalities and the evocation of the ideas and attitudes of the period.
This review first appeared in The Press, Christchurch, New Zealand on 18th March 2006.