Coming in at around 270 pages, The Disgrace of Kitty Grey is deceptively short yet so much happens that it could easily be a book three times that length. Hooper economises where other writers would have expanded and, for the most part, that works very well.
Kitty Grey is a contented milkmaid in Devonshire in 1813. She has control of the model dairy, supplying milk to the household, and is being courted by the local river man, Will Villiers. However, one day he disappears leaving his five year old sister Betsy in Kitty's care. Eager to find him, when the opportunity arises to run an errand for one of the young ladies of the house, she takes it and she and Betsy travel to London. However, the moment they step off the coach, their bag is stolen...
I must admit, the novel started slowly and I wondered whether the troubles of 'the family' were really necessary. However, everything links in nicely at the end of the book, giving that sense of a whole, coherent narrative that is sometimes lacking. The plot itself is enticing once the disappearance of Will occurs. Prior to this, it all feels very idyllic and calm. Then it moves along so quickly with disaster after disaster that I didn't have a clue how it would all wrap up before the end of the short novel.
Despite the relative brevity, Hooper manages to invoke the early nineteenth century remarkably well. There are three incredible sections which I felt I was living through but, for spoiler reasons, I'd better only mention the first. The stagecoach journey from Devon to London was so richly described that I was disappointed when it ended. There are touches of that genius throughout, creating the landscape of nineteenth century life with ease yet without pushing it in the reader's face.
All in all, this is a very good piece of historical fiction that focuses on telling an interesting story rather than risk becoming a nineteenth century textbook. Kitty is a very good protagonist, mature in some ways but not completely wise to the world. The presence of Betsy throughout added an extra layer of tension. I often thought 'she could do this' but she was hampered by the child. Although the ending was a little quick for my liking I would certainly recommend The Disgrace of Kitty Grey.