If you are tired of romping through Jollie Olde England in a haze of ribbons and lace, this novel is for you. Written with unflinching clarity and with impeccable research, Emma Donoghue shows her modern audience just how difficult life was in 1760s England for most people. Especially women. What struck me so forcibly was how narrow the range of options were for women, even in England where women were allowed to run their own businesses, unlike their sisters in France or Italy.
The protagonist, Mary Saunders, is a sadly familiar character, a highly intelligent woman with a a great deal of ambition and no-where for all that energy to go. In this day and age, she would go to college and become an entrepreneur. But in 1762, fourteen-year-old Mary sneers at her Mother’s life of piecework sewing, and doesn’t want to pattern her life after her. Given that her mother is an exhausted and bitter woman, one feels a great deal of sympathy for Mary’s point of view. But when Mary makes her first mis-step, of getting knocked up by a street vendor all for that length of shiny satin ribbon, her mother throws her out onto the street.
I won’t say any more about the plot, you will have to read it. Suffice it to say that having started out by putting her foot wrong, Mary never seems able to do anything right, and brings disaster upon herself and those close to her.
Ms. Donoghue is a talented writer with a wonderful prose style, rich in imaginative images, great one liners and truly wonderful descriptions. It is a pity, therefore, that sometimes the pacing of the novel was off. The two places that come to mind are during Reverend Dobb’s sermon in the Magdalen, and when we’re in the carriage going to Monmouth as it leaves London. I think the effect of the sermon was to be boring, but the trick here is to convey how boring it was without boring the reader. The problem with the carriage scene is that it quickly became an information dump. A stronger editorial hand was needed in these passages to tighten the pace and prevent the novel from slowing down to a crawl. Four stars. A bookclub recommendation with reader’s guide provided.