In a flashback, Queenie details her own childhood. Her mother wanted to name her Queenie, believing that this was the queen’s first name. Even after the vicar explains that the queen’s real name is Victoria, and christens the baby with this name, everyone calls her Queenie. Queenie’s mother, Lillie Buxton, is a strong farmer’s daughter, and her father, Wilfred Buxton, descends from a long line of butchers. He wears leather straps on his wrists as protection from his knives, and only takes them off when he bathes on Saturday nights.
Queenie’s parentage and name establishes her as an amalgamation of aristocratic and proletarian elements. She’s named (literally) after a queen, which shows her parents’ loyalty to and identification with the English monarchy. Still, her father’s difficult profession, inherited over generations, is a reminder that Queenie’s part of the large majority of Britons who are hardworking, uneducated, and largely unprivileged.
The Buxtons live on a small farm with a shed where Father does the butchering, carving up every usable part of the animal and saving “the bits that had no name” for sausage. Father wants sons to help him with this work and is disappointed to be presented with Queenie. Mother, who wakes up every day at four in the morning to prepare crust for pork pies, is happy to have someone help her with this grueling work. After working on the farm every morning, the Buxtons load their products into a van and drive to their shop in town, where they spend the day serving customers.
The Buxtons’ work is beyond difficult—it takes up every portion of their day. Their grueling lifestyle is another contrast with the uniformly “refined and mannerly” culture Gilbert and Hortense expect in England. It also points out that while England is an imperial power, large portions of its citizenry are living hard lives on the edge of poverty.
Queenie spends her childhood in the care of various girls who work for Father and Mother, all of whom mother scorns as “miners’ daughters.” Mother tries her best to avoid becoming pregnant again, but when Queenie is six, Mother gives birth to a son, Billy, with twin boys, Jim and Harry, following the next year. By the time Queenie is twelve, she has to get up with her mother to make the pies and then feed and dress her younger brothers. Jim dies of rheumatic fever when he’s very young.
In Queenie’s recollection, her entire family life—from her mother’s efforts at contraception to her own upbringing—are dictated by the needs of the butchery. Given their circumstances, the Buxtons’ decision to name their daughter after the Queen suggests that a strong identification with symbols of British power helps alleviate the pressure and sadness of a very harsh life.
No matter how hard her life is, Queenie still feels superior to the miners’ children who make up the bulk of her elementary school. These children are encrusted with grime, and many of them don’t even have shoes. They’re all underfed, and Queenie sometimes taunts them when her mother sends her a pork pie for dinner. Once, she catches Harry sharing his lunch with another child and slaps him, telling him not to do it again.
After detailing Queenie’s grim family life, the novel points out that her circumstances are relatively lucky, emphasizing how sharply the average Briton’s life diverges from the narratives of civilized refinery Britain disseminates in its colonies.
Queenie is a good student and her teacher, Miss Earl, favors her and often sends her on errands. But when Queenie is fourteen, Father decides any further education is useless for a girl and puts her to work on the farm. From then on, Queenie has to work every waking hour, cleaning chicken coops, finding eggs, and helping Mother with the pies. During the Depression, when many people go hungry and children come begging at the Buxtons’ door, Queenie has to make soup to feed them.
Even though Queenie’s a comparatively well-off British citizen, her own education and prospects are curtailed by her gender. Hortense, with her high level of education and proper manners, had a much more refined upbringing than Queenie—a contrast of which the Englishwoman is completely unaware when she patronizes her tenant as an adult.
One day, Mother sends Queenie to fetch Father from the butchering shed. Entering the shed for the first time in her life, she sees her father and Billy, both covered in blood raising knives over a cow’s grotesque carcass. Queenie screams and faints. Afterward she decides to become a vegetarian, sticking to this vow even when her father shouts at her. In the midst of this family turmoil, Aunt Dorothy, “Mother’s posh sister,” arrives from London and invites Queenie to come live with her.
Although Queenie loves her parents and is loved by them, her inability to thrive within her family’s established routines makes her similar to Hortense, who can’t find peace in her childhood homes. Both women experience an important period of personal development when they move to larger cities and acquire some comparative independence.