REVIEW: Hen Fever: A Sapphic Victorian Romance by Olivia Waite
Lydia Wraxhall is on her best behavior every day of the year—except one: the annual Bickerton Christmas Poultry Show. On that day she brushes her birds, sharpens her tongue, and engages in the closest thing the village knows to war.
Harriet Boyne is a soldier’s widow reeling from the worst years of her life. She and her friends have inherited a manor on the village outskirts, and Harriet is looking forward to a quiet holiday far from the anguish of the battlefield.
But a dispute over a flock of loose chickens — a rare local breed, which Lydia thinks could be champions and Harriet thinks could be delicious — draws Harriet into the competition under Lydia’s grudging guidance. Harriet’s frozen heart is thawed by Lydia’s gentleness, and lonely Lydia blossoms under Harriet’s keen regard. But the day of the poultry show is fast approaching, and everyone’s drawing up battle lines. And in the contest between secret love and public glory, there can only be one winner.
Dear Ms. Waite,
I believe that there’s nothing more cutthroat than an English village competition. For years the small village of Bickerton has had an annual Christmas Poultry show and it’s an opportunity for everyone to take out all their anger, frustrations, humiliations, and general pique in the form of snide comments and pointed verbal barbs. Lydia Wraxhall might smile and beam at everyone to the point where she appears to be sunshine in the depths of night, but make no mistake, even the vicar knows Lydia gives no quarter on this one day when she allows herself a little freedom.
One person knows something about actual war, though. Harriet Boyne lost her husband twice to the Crimean War – once when she showed up only to discover her husband didn’t want the bother of her there and once to death. The circle of friends who now live in the grand manor are also survivors of the horror of war and most knew Lydia’s soldier brother before he also died. Harriet has felt as if her heart is frozen while Lydia wonders if she is permitted to ask for the life she wants. Can chickens help bring Lydia and Harriet what they most desire?
Frankly the chickens, delightful as they are, are only a means to get this story going and keep it cracking along. The real meat and potatoes of why anyone needs to read it are the inter-relationships of the people and wow, are there a lot of people tucked into it. Most are given deft pencil stroke descriptions that, though brief, are enough to tell us what we need to know. Lydia’s parents were more proud of their son as a soldier who died for Queen and country than as a son and think of their daughter as only a tool to be used. Harriet’s husband liked the idea of a wife more than the actual woman he married. The woman who takes over cooking at the manor is determined that no one goes hungry on her watch again.
I liked that the manor household members are more than the sum of the scars they bear from their time near battlefields and we get to see that. Later when various villagers are brought together, their frailties as well as their intense competitive sides are gently revealed. There are no true villains in the book (except maybe Lydia’s parents who are no joy to be around), only people who have fallen short of their best selves or are hampered by the strictures of polite society.
Lydia and Harriet are among those struggling to be their true selves. Lydia has been overlooked by most and seen only as the doctor’s dutiful daughter, staying at home to care for her aging parents as the quintessential Spinster. Harriet is the Widow traumatized by war and her discovery of how little her husband truly valued her. When they meet, there are some sparks and bristling over what could be a fantastic chicken find. But they also hold their breath and wish for more.
Ah, but we’re not through yet as there are lessons to be learned – and I think these actually are – by all. The final conflict is actually needed and serves a purpose in bringing everyone as well as our MCs together in the service of chickens and, just possibly with enough courage, love. This is a charming, and at times funny, novella that also manages to deliver doses of deep emotion. B+
Ooh, I didn’t realize this was out already! Must read it.
@Janine: This is the first Waite book I’ve read and I was (obviously) very impressed with it.
@Jayne: I read another of hers once. I ended up putting it down because it was too slow for me but her writing was gorgeous and her research was good, I thought. I’ve been wanting to try more and since this is a shorter one I figured there was good chance of the pacing working out for me.
I read this and really liked it! I may write a mini-review so I’ll reserve my thoughts of that but it made me want to continue reading her books, for sure. It’s been a year and a half since she’s had a novel out; I hope a new one comes out sooner.
@Janine: I’m so glad you liked it. I agree that her writing is lovely.
I really enjoyed this one too! It was definitely deeper and more heartfelt than the village competition romp that I was expecting from the blurb. In a good way.
@Janine – I’m glad you liked this. I’ve probably recommended this before but I think you might like Hellion’s Waltz. It’s the fastest paced book in her ff trilogy and it’s standalone. It has a heist and a Jewish protagonist.
@cleo: Yes, I have been meaning to read that. I don’t usually read out of order and that’s the one thing holding me back. But I think I’ll read it now.
@Janine: the three books in the trilogy are so lightly linked that I don’t think order will make a difference. They’re not set in the same towns and there’s almost no character overlap. But if you do need to read in order, the 2nd book is also quite different from the 1st.