This is an odd book falling somewhere between historical fiction and romance. It is erotic in detail, and the main character, Tully, works out of a brothel for much of her life. At the same time, there’s a kind of innocence to her that suffers her state, and yet Tully finds beauty and joy where she can.
It’s a historically accurate presentation of the mid-18th century with all the light and dark of England in those times. There is no allowance for modern sensibility in how it shows the state of women of that time, and as such, there is nearly every horror and abuse possible either in passing reference or on the page. This is not a read for the weak-hearted.
The presentation itself is fascinating as the tale begins with Tully in prison awaiting trial for murder. A medical examination reveals her to be pregnant so her trial is delayed until the birth of her child, called “pleading the belly.” This gives her ample time to reflect on her circumstances and how she came to be here. The reflection, in the form of her writing a memoir, becomes the over-story with occasional reminders of from where the narrator is speaking. Most of the time, the story, starting in Tully’s childhood, is told in a straightforward manner.
Though the narrative voice sometimes feels a little too modern, the contents are pure seventeen hundreds. As an example, there is not just the belief but also the actuality of mystic abilities, while mistresses are simultaneously treated with both acceptance and scorn. The social structure is presented in lovingly accurate detail with all its contradictions. This is neither a modernized nor an idealized portrayal.
The story is the tale of a young girl used for others’ purposes who tries to survive when she has nothing to call her own. She’s a caring, likeable girl who forms strong attachments that are returned if not in full measure then very close to it. She brings joy and strength to those who most need it, holds her head up high, and fights for herself and those she cares for.
This duty is complicated by her ability to see “ghosts” of the troubles haunting the people around her, the quotes only because some are events or fears more than the actual soul of someone long gone. These ghosts help her navigate a situation where some are trying to cheat their way to success at the cost of others, involving Tully in their twisted schemes.
The book is full of open sexuality, something Tully enjoys quite a lot, but only when she feels affection for her partner or partners, something she discovers when contracted to entertain a man who wants only a status symbol and nothing more. There are many lovely lines in the book, and so much emotion of the complicated kind that you really feel a part of Tully’s journey to selfhood. Little is spared in the portrayal, as might be guessed from how the book begins. This was not a good time for women of little means, or even of good standing, and yet there were ways to make a life at it.
This is not a pretty tale for all it has moments of loveliness. It’s not an easy read nor a particularly happy one, but it is intense and full of meaning. There is one tiny linchpin upon which the overall story stands that I found a bit unlikely, but still plausible enough to make this book well worth the read. A truly fascinating account that spares none of the horror while showing light even so.
P.S. I received this title from the publisher through NetGalley in return for an honest review.