The four respectable ladies of Prospect, New South Wales, have very little in common apart from the fact that they are neighbours and bonded by strife.
Adelaide Nightingale, Pearl Fletcher, Louisa Worthington and Maggie Albright all live in the enclave beyond The Coronation Arch that marks Prospect’s eastern border. The Arch not only separates the ladies geographically from the town, it defines their ‘otherness’, which was settled once and for all by the appalling scandal of 1919 for which they will always be remembered.
In 1919 when each of the ladies was confronted by a challenge they judged to be insurmountable, when men who might have acted on their behalf were scarce and there was no one to turn to, they advertised for a part-time husband. And they shared him! The shame, however thrilling, was not to be countenanced in a town famous only for its sheep, its bad weather and the excellence of its general store, Nightingales.
As a result, those ladies became united against a world that would forever regard them with suspicion. Their understanding of each other and their reliance on each other in a crisis transcends any lack of affection they have and the irritation they harbour with each other’s faults.
Adelaide is especially bad at crises. She’s a large-boned, sweet natured and famously indecisive woman. She’s the second child and only daughter of the wealthy Bluett family, who shielded her from problem solving.
Both her parents are now dead. Her brother Angus, a lawyer in Sydney, has sold the family property, Somerset Station to Joe Fletcher. And her husband Marcus (married in haste when Adelaide was unceremoniously dumped for Louisa by William Mayberry, the Mayor’s son) has died from drink.
Now she’s a widow Adelaide is devoting herself to good works and the raising of her children, Freddie and Phyllis. She continues to own Nightingales, the family’s famous store, but she relies Maggie Albright, formerly Maggie O’Connell, to manage it. Maggie is Adelaide’s closest neighbour. She’s eight years younger than Adelaide and Adelaide has always considered her to be socially inferior even if she is clever with numbers.
There was little love lost between the Bluetts and the O’Connells. Not only were the O’Connells Irish Catholic, the families were embroiled in a long running dispute over land that ended in court with Adelaide’s father being obliged to pay Maggie’s father damages for shooting him in the leg. Maggie has, not very far below the surface of her chirpy exterior, regarded Adelaide as the enemy.
Maggie’s mother died giving birth to Maggie’s twin brothers, Alec and Ed, so when their father disappeared, allegedly with a red head, in 1918, Maggie was left to raise them alone. They barely survived on the paltry income she earned as a cleaner to the Mayor and his wife so Maggie married Ginger Albright, then the shop boy at Nightingales, because he was prepared to look after her as well as do her bidding.
Maggie is not only numerate, she’s feisty and ambitious and determined to become a someone in a town that remembers she once stole a pie from Nightingales. She will become this someone despite Ginger Albright’s common sense. She doesn’t consider herself to be anyone’s inferior.
Adelaide might have been equally inclined to look down on Pearl Fletcher (formerly McCleary) because in 1919 she employed Pearl as her house-keeper. But Adelaide came quickly to depend on her for advice in troubled times even when Pearl decided against Adelaide’s conscience, to advertise for a part-time husband.
There never could be any room in their friendship for condescension, even if Pearl is another Irish Catholic. The women are of a similar age and Pearl is, in any case, the cleverer and better educated. She never was a proper house-keeper. She arrived in the Nightingale household under false pretences, in reality a teacher looking for her missing fiancé.
Pearl’s family consists of Annie McGuire, the Sydney woman who raised her from babyhood when her mother abandoned Pearl. Pearl is quick-thinking and decisive but she’s is also headstrong, bossy and determined to be right under all circumstances. She goes her own way without consultation because she believes so profoundly in her own rightness.
It’s hard to stomach but Pearl is also brave and kind – she has an especially soft spot for Maggie – and the other respectable ladies trust her judgement above all others. If there’s tension between Pearl and Adelaide it’s because Pearl, having turned her back on the missing fiancé, married Joe Fletcher, the new owner of Somerset Station and now has the audacity to regard Adelaide’s childhood home as her own.
Pearl and Joe have three sons and a daughter they are raising as their own, a child abandoned at birth by her mother as Pearl had been. Only Pearl, Joe and Annie McGuire know the baby is Louisa’s. Only Pearl and Adelaide knew Louisa was pregnant when she fled from Prospect once the scandal broke in 1919.
Now, in 1930, Louisa has returned to Prospect poor and determined to find a husband and the ladies are filled with dread. They might have sheltered her when she was in trouble ten years before but they know she can’t be trusted.
Her youthful interest in William Mayberry had been short-lived. Within weeks she’d been charmed by the handsome but feckless Jimmy Worthington and married him. He died a war hero, leaving her with a ramshackle property and debts. Since then she has fended for herself, relying on her beauty and wits remarkably untrammelled by scruples.
Louisa is estranged from her mother who left the district with even less concern for the happiness of her only child than Louisa has for hers. Now, Louisa, unaware of her child’s fate, wants stability and security. The ladies are right to be filled with horror. Her wits are to be feared. No man is safe once she decides he’s her ticket to comfort.