There were many reasons I decided to give this book a go. It cropped up as an automated recommendation on Goodreads some time ago and the cover’s pretty wonderful; so when I found it in my local secondhand bookshop I snaffled it straight away. Add to that the fact it’s set in my native Bristol, and I simply couldn’t say no. Yet again, I’m pleased to say that Goodreads has come up trumps, because I wasn’t expecting to enjoy it anywhere near as much as I did. This is the best kind of historical fiction: full of convincing period flavour without ever sagging under the preparatory research, and enlivened with meaty characters who often occupy the shifting grey mid-tones of morality and are all the more interesting for it.
Ruth is the plain younger daughter of a whorehouse madam in the stews of late 18th-century Bristol. When her elder sister Dora joins the stable of girls on offer to their visitors, Ruth waits impatiently for her own turn, keen to become useful and have the reward of a new dress or enough to eat. But Fate doesn’t mean her to spend her days lying on her back. One day one of their visitors spots her tussling with Dora, and Ruth’s future is made. Spotting her quickness, gumption and determination, the young Mr Dryer takes her under his wing and trains her to become a lady-boxer.
While still in her early teens, Ruth makes a name for herself taking on all comers and scuffing up the sawdust at the Hatchet Inn (built in 1606, this pub behind the Hippodrome is now famous for its rock and heavy metal nights; sounds like a place worth visiting!). She also catches the eye of the brawny but gentle Tom Webber, who shyly begins to court her. When an accident takes her out of commission for a time, Ruth recovers to find that Dryer’s eye has turned elsewhere: namely to Tom, with hopes of grooming him to become the next Champion of England. But with her disappointment comes the excitement of a new beginning: Dryer will take them away from the brothel (the ‘convent’) and give them their own home and a chance at a very different kind of life.
As the young couple embark on their adventure, their story becomes increasingly entwined with those of two other members of Dryer’s circle. George Bowden, an old schoolfriend of Dryer’s and fellow boxing aficionado, desperately tries to find a way to establish himself in the kind of comfortable, gentlemanly life he feels is due to him. And Charlotte Sinclair, the pox-scarred sister of George’s friend Perry, sits in her family home near Keynsham, hoping that one day love will walk through the door and rescue her from her heartless brother. When marriage does arrive, it isn’t the stuff of dreams: indeed, she finds herself tied to a largely indifferent husband. But there is one ray of light on the horizon: an unexpected friendship and a most unusual series of lessons.
This is Freeman’s first novel but she lectures on creative writing at Bath Spa University, so it’s hardly surprising that it’s a sophisticated, well-crafted book. She sticks to the places she knows – the book rarely strays beyond its heartland of Bristol, Bath and the surrounding countryside – and for those who know the area there’s great pleasure to be had in following the characters across the map. But it goes beyond local interest because Freeman succeeds in two key areas. She’s found an absorbing, little-known aspect of history in the form of lady-boxers; and she brings it to life in vibrant prose. She’s also particularly good at narrative voice, which is so often a problem in historical novels.
Here the narrative switches back and forth between the three narrators, each of whom has a different character and social status, and each of them has a distinct and convincing voice of their own. George and Charlotte were less interesting for me because they sounded like any other well-bred narrator of an 18th-century novel, and sometimes I grew a little impatient with their extended wallowing in self-pity; but I thought Ruth’s voice was a brilliant achievement. Her speech is peppered with cant and slang, and her style perfectly backs up her character: down-to-earth, pugnacious, practical and fierce. I even learned something about my own language: the origins of the phrase ‘to be up to scratch’, which comes from boxers lining up on either side of the ‘scratch’ in the middle of the ring. Fascinating.
This is one for those who enjoyed The Crimson Petal and the White and Slammerkin. It has the same gritty, detailed and muddy approach to history, and the same perfectly-judged tone. It stands out because, in the vast majority of books I’ve read about this period, we don’t get much beyond a very narrow geographical and social context: London, with perhaps a brief visit to Bath or a country house; and an upper-class, sub-Jane-Austen flavour to the society on offer. This is different: a gleeful glimpse of the rambunctious, shabby parts of provincial life that very rarely get a look-in.