I finished this book a few days ago, and I’ve been waiting to write about it until I had a little distance. The ending is so harsh that I needed some time to get over it and remember how much I enjoyed reading the book as a whole. Because I did really like it–it’s a page-turner, and one of those books where everything is done well. The plot is tight and well-constructed, the characters are complex and interesting, and of course I loved the historical elements. It’s not until the end of the novel that you discover that it’s drawn from a true story (or fictionalized based on the little that is known about an actual person/event).
The main character, Mary Saunders, is a teenage girl living in London at the end of the 18th century. Her family is poor but modest, and her mother has remarried after her father’s unfortunate death. Because it was her father’s wish, Mary goes to the charity school and thus has a good level of education. Despite the limited prospects available to her (becoming a seamstress or becoming a servant), she dreams of having a better life and envies the beautiful red ribbon that the local prostitute wears in her hair. Her desire for rich things leads her down a path of self-destruction that ends in, well, self-destruction (duh).
The story is an interesting one, despite the really sad things that happen, mostly because of the wider themes that the writer exploits. What options were available to people at that time, and how did the disparity between rich and poor affect those with keen personal ambition? Was it really better to be poor and moral, accepting your place in the world, rather than to compromise your morality for the sake of a better life? What does it really mean to be ‘free’?
The one (big) aspect tof he story that I found to be disturbing was the nature of the mother-daughter relationships that are depicted. It makes me wonder how well the author gets along with her own mother… At any rate, I would recommend it for those who like historical fiction and can handle an unhappy ending. If you do or have read it, please let me know what you thought.