This is Maria McCann’s third novel and it has large shoes to fill: her debut, As Meat Loves Salt, set during the English Civil War, is one of the most compelling pieces of historical fiction I’ve read (with one of the most conflicted, unsettling antiheroes). Her second book, The Wilding, was set at a similar period and, for me, wasn’t nearly as powerful; but Ace, King, Knave is a return to form. Moving away from the male narrators and the 17th-century setting of the first two novels, McCann draws us into the roistering world of 18th-century London, and the experiences of two very different women.
The daughter of a country gentleman, Sophia Buller is plain and idealistic and cursed with what her family euphemistically refers to as a ‘little weakness’. She can hardly believe her luck when the charming, handsome Edmund Zedland proposes marriage to her, and she loses herself in fantasies of the marital bliss to come. But, as Sophia follows her new husband first to Bath and then to a distinctly unprepossessing house in London, she realises that marriage is not the union of two souls, as she’d imagined. Edmund spends most of his time away from her, allegedly in the pursuit of his father’s debtors, refusing to allow Sophia to be the wifely helpmeet she dreams of being. And so she finds herself stranded in a shabby, unfamiliar city with unsympathetic servants, struggling to educate Edmund’s recalcitrant pageboy Titus and trapped in a very different kind of married life to that she’d expected.
Over on the other side of town, another woman is also beginning to reassess her life. Betsy-Ann Blore has never had romantic illusions: as an ex-tinker, ex-whore and ex-kept woman, she has seen more than her fair share of the underbelly of life, and she still plays her part in it by buying and selling goods of questionable provenance. But now her partner Sam, deprived of his old trade of cardsharp, has joined Betsy-Ann’s thuggish brother Harry and his crew of resurrectionists. As the stench of death thickens in Betsy-Ann’s lodgings and Sam grows ever more miserable and drunken, she keeps herself occupied: practising her sleight of hand with the cards, counting her assets, and remembering her previous keeper, the good-looking Ned Hartry – scourge of the card-tables and the only man Betsy-Ann has truly loved.
‘Knave of Hearts,’ she said. The words excited her. A king had a queen and duties, but a knave only ever had mistresses; he was slippery and dangerous, like the cards themselves.
McCann creates a very firm divide between Sophia’s and Betsy-Ann’s narrations: even though they’re both told in third-person, there’s no danger of confusing the two. The very language undergoes a transmutation and McCann manages to do what she did in As Meat Loves Salt: the language is so completely convincing that it gives the story itself an added sense of authenticity. Betsy-Ann’s tale is told in an initially bewildering mixture of plain English and 18th-century cant (fortunately there’s a glossary at the back although, reading this on a Kindle, I only noticed this at the very end). Although I was often left baffled, I was also absolutely intrigued by it and now, should the opportunity arise, I feel that I could tackle a conversation with any of Covent Garden’s 18th-century denizens (by the end of the book you’ll be familiar with wipers, autem morts, kinchins, Romeville, Abbesses and all sorts).
For me, Betsy-Ann was the more interesting character as well as the most verbally engaging: we’re all familiar with stories of rakes and tarts with hearts of gold, but McCann goes beyond the easy stereotypes to show us a brutally plausible picture of London’s criminal underworld, as Betsy-Ann scrabbles to make a living and keep what little independence she can from the men around her. Sophia, I’m sorry to say, I found rather dull by contrast, mainly because for much of the book she felt like little more than a passive overgrown child, displaying neither spirit nor curiosity, and making little effort to tackle her situation. In a way, of course, this only emphasises that – while Sophia has many advantages over Betsy-Ann – she too is at the mercy of the men in her family, who can treat her as they please, and transfer her like property from one to the other. It may be done in a more legal and more socially acceptable fashion than it’s done in Betsy-Ann’s world, but the essence of the contract is the same: one man passing his woman onto another. Perhaps the only difference is that Sophia has been brought up to expect this treatment to be sugared by pretty words and presents. After all: ‘Boys are taught how to strike off shackles, girls how best to bear them.’
Similar in subject and feel to Slammerkin, this is an absorbing story which serves up cardsharps, secrets and rakes with a dash of low-life and a hefty dose of bleak authenticity. This London is a place where innocents of every class are gulled and where appearances mean everything… and nothing. There were little titbits of information that delighted me: who knew, for example, that one of Beau Nash’s successors as Master of Ceremonies in Bath was Samuel Derrick, often credited as being the man behind the notorious Harris’s List? And I was tickled by what seemed to be a passing reference to the Chevalier d’Eon, giving fencing lessons in petticoats: a throwaway comment and no more than a flash of period colour, but still rather fun. The conclusion of the novel is perhaps a little abrupt and tidy to be entirely satisfying (I wanted to know a bit more about what happened to the characters afterwards), and for me it’s not quite up there with As Meat Loves Salt, but it’s nevertheless a gripping and atmospheric meander through the seedier side of 18th-century London.
I received this book from the publisher via Netgalley in return for a fair and honest review.