Historical Fiction Reading Challenge #3
Leading a drab, miserable life in two rooms of a London cellar, slighted in favour of her half-brother, Mary Saunders dreams of colour and fine clothes. Offered a choice between going into service or being apprenticed to a dressmaker in her mother’s home town, she refuses both, wishing instead to make her own way and be beholden to no one. This decision leads her into prostitution at the age of fourteen, walking the streets with her new friend Doll and decking herself out in the brightest colours she can find. When a bad cough and a harsh winter conspire to lead Mary to the Magdalen Hospital she learns, to her surprise, that needlework is something for which she has both a talent and a love. But that streak of independence and ambition brings her back to the Rookery - from which she is very soon on the run, with a debt and a ruthless killer behind her.
Having nowhere else to go, she buys a plain dress and takes a coach to Monmouth. There she plans to pose as an orphan and throw herself on the mercy of her mother’s old friend, taking up the apprenticeship she had once refused. She plans to stay only until it is safe to return to London, and to loathe the town that is so much smaller than she had imagined. But just like in the Magdalen, Mary finds herself settling into the ordinary life she never wanted. Under Jane Jones’s tutelage she learns to embroider, to appreciate good cloth and good tailoring, to see the shabbiness of the gowns she had once worn and thought so fine. The Joneses and their servants Daffy and Abi come to feel like family, and Monmouth to feel like home. The nursemaid Mrs Ash, however, takes against Mary from the start and is determined to find proof of her wickedness; and a piece of Mary’s past is closer than she thinks. Coupled with the rebellious spirit she just cannot quell, these things can only lead to disaster.
I’m a sucker for all things eighteenth century, so I loved this from the start. The people and places are still vivid in my mind, along with the small wonders of life among the London poor. Mary’s character is almost directly opposed to my own - in her position, I’d have jumped at the chance to learn dressmaking in Monmouth, and I’d have known my place once I got there - but I did feel sympathy for her, even if I didn’t always like her or understand her adherence to her impossible dreams. That sympathy began seriously to waver in the final third of the book, as she once again sabotaged her chance to stay in a place that, at heart, she didn’t want to leave. Either she was essentially a decent person, in which case she was a fool; or she was irredeemably flawed by vanity and ambition and thus unlikeable. The final chapter, and the fact that many of her snide thoughts were accurate (mutton dressed as lamb isn’t a good look in any era) saved her and the novel from any great fall in my opinion. It also helped that the Monmouth section of the book was told from multiple viewpoints, so that I wasn’t constantly in Mary’s head.
There’s a real murder case at the heart of it, one with no information remaining about preceding events. With little more than the bare facts of the crime to work from, it’s remarkable how convincing a story has been woven to lead up to it. People and events all inadvertently conspire to ensure that no other ending is possible. And the clothes...! The aspect of Mary I could most relate to was her hankering after gorgeous garments and brilliant colours (Aside: Mary first prostitutes herself for a red ribbon; the English hardcover edition, which I own, has a built-in bookmark of red ribbon. Isn’t that a lovely touch?). The clothes and fabrics are mouth-watering: slammerkin, sack, robe à la française; satin, velvet, paduasoy, taffeta, tabby, gauze ... Today’s synthetics seem hopelessly bland in comparison; and if far more practical, the garments they form feel sadly lacking in elegance.