Cover image of "Ha'penny," a gripping alternate history

Alternate history is a curious branch of science fiction—or, perhaps more properly, of speculative fiction. Because the factors that limit the author’s imagination aren’t the boundaries of science but those of history itself: reality. To work, alternate history must be believable in the context of what we know of our past. In Ha’penny, the second volume of her Farthing Trilogy, accomplished British science fiction and fantasy writer Jo Walton has achieved that, and more. She has written a gripping alternate history that illuminates the past with her artful imagination.

Estimated reading time: 6 minutes

In Farthing, the first book of the trilogy, Nazi Germany and England had signed a peace treaty in 1941. That left Hitler dominant on the Continent—before the seminal events that drew the US and the USSR into the war. And now, eight years later, the “Farthing Set,” the group of right-wing aristocrats credited with ending the war, is poised on the brink of power. Farthing—combining alternate fiction with a murder mystery—tells the story of the violence that facilitated their ascent to power.

Ha’penny (Farthing Trilogy #2) by Jo Walton (2007) 332 pages ★★★★★

Photo of Number 10 Downing Street, where the Farthing Set moved in this gripping alternate history
Number 10 Downing Street is one of the most famous addresses in the world. Imagine how British history might have unfolded if a pro-Nazi cabal had moved into this house after World War II. That’s the premise of this novel. Image: Sergeant Tom Robinson – Wikipedia

A gripping alternate history that’s not far-fetched

How could this have happened in the seat of democracy? But it’s not so far-fetched. “England is like a country of sleepwalkers, walking over the edge of a cliff,” Walton writes, “and has been these last eight years. You’re prosperous, you’re content, and you don’t care what’s going on on the other side of the Channel as long as you can keep on having boat races and horse shows and coming up to London to see a show . . .” After all, most of us only pay attention to politics if we think it’s getting in the way of living our lives.

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Ha’penny picks up the story shortly after the Farthing Set has settled into 10 Downing Street. The scene shifts from the country home in the village of Farthing where the first book was set to London’s theater district. There, Viola Lark, one of the six notorious Larkin sisters, has achieved stardom on the stage. She is set to begin production of a production of Hamlet, with herself in the title role in the theatrical fashion of the age. Viola cares only about the theater. She’s indifferent to politics. But the novel tells the fascinating tale of her gradual immersion in a plot to put an end to the fascist Farthing regime that has recently risen to power.

The central characters are modeled on the real-life Mitford sisters

At the center of the story are the aristocratic Larkin sisters. They’re closely modeled on the real-life Mitford sisters. The six women’s divergent paths through life in the 1930s, 40s, and beyond kept the English people variously entertained and enraged. The noted journalist and author Ben MacIntyre describes them as “Diana the Fascist, Jessica the Communist, Unity the Hitler-lover; Nancy the Novelist; Deborah the Duchess and Pamela the unobtrusive poultry connoisseur.” They were an endless source of gossip and scandalous headlines.

Photo of the Mitford sisters, models for the central characters in this gripping alternate history
The six Mitford sisters and their brother. Children of right-wing aristocratic English parents, they included a Nazi, a Fascist, and two leftists, including a Communist. Image: Vanity Fair

In truth, two of the sisters (Diana and Unity) were close to Hitler. And Diana married Sir Oswald Mosley, the head of the British Union of Fascists. But Nancy and Jessica, both accomplished writers, were left-leaning. With such stranger-than-fiction models for her characters, Jo Walton could hardly be faulted for a too-vivid imagination in writing Ha-penny.

A personal note

I’m proud to say that I knew Jessica Mitford—she was better known as Decca—for a few years in the 1970s. Decca had moved to the USA early in life after her first husband died in World War II. She left the Communist Party not long after Khrushchev’s 1956 “Secret Speech” detailing Stalin’s crimes. By then, Decca had long since settled in Berkeley with her second husband, civil rights attorney Robert Treuhaft (a law partner of my late friend and long-time attorney). She was a brilliant social critic with a wicked, nonstop sense of humor. Decca wrote the widely acclaimed The American Way of Death pillorying the funeral industry.

About the author

Photo of Jo Walton, author of this gripping alternate history
Jo Walton. Image: Austin Chronicle

Jo Walton is a Welsh-Canadian science fiction and fantasy author who has written a total of fifteen novels as well as nonfiction and books of essays, short stories, and poetry. One of her fantasy novels, Among Others, won both the Hugo and Nebula awards for best novel, and another won the World Fantasy Award. She has won numerous other awards for her science fiction work. Farthing, Ha’penny, and Half a Crown form the Farthing Trilogy. They were published in the years 2006 to 2008. Walton moved to Montreal after her first novel was published. She is married and has one child.

For my review of the first book in the Farthing Trilogy, see FarthingWhat if Nazi Germany had won the war? The third, Half a Crown, is at Jo Walton finds the present in an alternate history of the past.

My posts 5 top nonfiction books about World War II and 10 best alternate history novels may also interest you.

For a largely fact-based novel about the fascinating model for the Larkin sisters in this novel, see The Mitford Affair by Marie Benedict (Blundering through the 1930s with the notorious Mitford sisters).

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