An Independent Woman: Why Readers Love Nell Hibbert

Posted on 6th September, 2019

A few days ago, Karen Mace, who runs the Books And Me book blog, published her review of A Respectable Woman and declared that “I... have taken the character of Nell to my heart.” It is a sentiment that appears in many of the book’s reviews and it set me wondering why it is that readers like Nell so much.


At the start of the book, Nell is just another down-trodden back-street housewife, stretching every penny as far as she can, to try to make up for her husband Stan’s propensity for chucking his money away over the bar on the King’s Head… At least, that’s what Nell assumes he is doing with his wages.


Nell had a tough time before she met Stan and I’m sure that readers feel for her, as they learn about how she lost her brothers and her sister in the Great War, after which her darling mother simply gave up and soon passed away herself, leaving Nell not just having to fend for herself at the tender age of 16, but also to question why she wasn’t reason enough for her mother to carry on living.


Do readers feel sorry for Nell because of this? Maybe.


But being sorry for a character isn’t enough to make you keep reading or to make you, in Karen’s words, take that character to your heart. So what is it about Nell?


Well, I think it’s to do with the way she handles her misfortunes. She has to cope with various difficulties throughout the book and she tackles them head on, with forthrightness, honesty and an unshakable resolve to do the best she possibly can for her Alf and Cassie, her children.


   * * * * the audio book cover * * * *


She may seem tough on the outside, but that is because her life has forced her to be strong and independent. Certainly, marriage to Stan has forced her to think for herself. At one point in the story, Nell observes her friend Leonie receiving help from a mutual friend and sees that, as close as the two of them are and as much as they love one another, one very basic difference between her and Leonie is that Leonie’s long and happy marriage has encouraged her to see nothing wrong in leaning on a man and letting him make decisions for her.




   * * * * the large print cover * * * *

Marriage to Stan, on the other hand, has taught Nell to be independent. In fact, I did consider calling the book An Independent Woman, but that title had already been used more than once.


So Nell is decisive and independent. If something needs doing, she does it. But is that enough to make readers so fond of her?


I think it’s an important part of what readers see and appreciate in her; but I think that it’s the combination of this plus her love for her children that is the real secret of Nell’s success as a character. However resolute she has to be on the outside, on the inside she is pure mush where her beloved children are concerned. Everything she does springs from a desire to give them the best life she can.


And then, of course, there is Nell’s secret. Everyone in the book believes her to be a widow, a fiction she is forced to maintain in order for her to be regarded as a woman of respectability and for her children not to have fingers pointed at them.


Alf and Cassie are Nell’s greatest source of joy. Her devotion to them is both her deepest strength and also her Achilles’ heel – and ultimately leads to her greatest challenge.


hardback, paperback & e-book cover


If you have read A Respectable Woman, I wonder if you agree with me about Nell. And what do you think of An Independent Woman as a title for Nell's story?


A Respectable Woman  at UK Amazon   US Amazon   Amazon Canada  Amazon Australia



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Comments (4)

Thank you for your comment, Jen. I think you have raised an important point - that for a character to be one that is truly cared about by the reader, s/he has to be involved in matters that readers can relate to and recognise even if the same issue has never happened to them personally. Some issues, such as to protect your children and do you best for them, are universal and can add depth and emotion to a story.
Nell is such a memorable character, Susanna, and I'm glad I'm not the only reader who has taken her into my heart. I was drawn to Nell for many of the reasons you've identified but especially her determination to keep going in the face of difficulties and also do her best for her children--two things I continue to grapple with in my own life. Although it's historical fiction, her story and character transcend time and although the specific details will differ, the challenges she faces are those I suspect many women can relate to.
Hi, Louise. It's lovely to hear from you again. I'm pleased that you liked Nell and appreciated the way she faced her problems head on. The way that characters tackle difficult situations is so important to the success of the story. I agree with you that the audiobook cover by Isis Soundings is very appealing. Thanks for commenting.
I really liked Nell in "A Respectable Woman" - and yes, I can see why you thought of calling it "An Independent Woman" because Nell had to fight for everything she achieved and she did it on her own. You asked on the introduction to the blog on the front page of the website which of the three book covers is the best and my favourite is the cover of the audiobook.