Lemon Sherbet and Dolly Blue by Lynn Knight

26th Jul 2011


In Lemon Sherbet and Dolly Blue the focus is similar, with a working-class Derbyshire family’s story told from the 1860s until World War Two. The crucial difference is that this family is Knight’s own.

Subtitled as ‘The Story of an Accidental Family’, Knight tells the life stories of her great-grandparents, Dick and Betsy Nash, great-aunt Eva Nash, grandparents Annie and Willie Thompson and Cora, Knight’s mother.

Why so ‘accidental’? Well, amongst the nostalgic tales of Betsy’s corner shop, with its paper twists of sweets and boxes of Persil, the prevailing narrative is concerned with the unusual amount of adoptions within the family: of Dick, Eva and Cora.

Whilst their status as ‘adopted’ could have set them apart, the loving bonds that Knight portrays through the family’s everyday life are indicative of a real success story, where blood ties are equal to ties nurtured.

Knight’s interest in this period and area of England is clear from the social and historical context she provides. In fact she paints such a vivid portrait of the time that there are two aspects to enjoy: a frankly heart-warming family history and an educational thread that runs throughout.

Interspersing the narrative and family photographs are excerpts from Woman’s Weekly, Good Housekeeping and books such as Margery Spring Rice’s Working-Class Wives that give little insights into how things were ‘back then’, from soap advertisements to household budgets.

What I appreciated most in this novel was that kind of telescopic viewpoint. The focus on the family is often moved when Knight pulls acquaintances and fellow villagers into the spotlight to give brief, yet satisfying, glimpses of the community.

The excerpts she provides then move our perspective outwards from Betsy’s corner shop, which acts as an epicentre to the wide-ranging narrative.

After I closed the novel it was Betsy, Eva and Annie who lingered in my mind. These women were the backbone of the family, often scraping to make ends meet and making huge personal sacrifices in the case of Eva.

Knight’s contextual information provided is fascinating for those interested in working-class women in the first half of the 20th-century, where they often had to be fiercely independent whilst maintaining a façade of obedience. As one excerpt on domestic abuse states, ‘[women] stood in a court alone, in a man’s world and got man’s sense of justice.’

Despite the interesting content, I sometimes found Knight’s prose distracting. In particular, occasional awkward metaphors make the effort for colourful, vivid storytelling quite obvious, as does the sometimes overtly nostalgic tone.

Even some excerpts from publications at the time seem related only vaguely to the narrative in which they appear, making their presence a little unnatural. I think this is why Lemon Sherbet and Dolly Blue failed to engross me as much as it could have.

But we all enjoy a true life story, and this is an excellent one that still remains very compelling. Published next week by Atlantic Books, pre-order it in hardback for £9 from Amazon.

Rating: 3/5

Recommended for: Those with a desire for ‘real life’, nostalgia and a good education in the social-history of early 20th-century England.

Other recommended reading: For fiction, try Below Stairs: The Bestselling Memoirs of a 1920s Kitchen Maid by Margaret Powell, and for semi-autobiographical fiction the classic Lark Rise to Candleford by Flora Thompson.

Alex Rowse