“It just seemed so odd – and brilliant – that women were boxing on stage at the same time that other ladies were fanning themselves and embroidering.”
Those words – from Horrible Histories – inspired Anna Freeman to write a colourful and compelling debut novel.
It’s set in Bristol in 1799, and it moves between backstreets, brothels and grand houses of the city, as it weaves an elaborate tale of fighters, entrepreneurs, gamblers and spectators, all caught up in the world of boxing.
At the centre of the story are two very different women – Ruth and Charlotte.
Ruth Webber grew up in ‘the Convent’, a brothel run first by her mother and later by her sister Dora. There was no work there for Ruth – who was too plain, too ungainly – but Ruth had spirit and she was always going to stand up for herself. Her sister’s regular client, Grenville Dryer, saw a sisterly scuffle between Dora and Ruth. He saw that Ruth had potential as a prize fighter in the fashionable world of women’s boxing, and that he was in the perfect position to make money from her.
He was right, and Ruth’s success brought respect, admirers, love; things that she had never thought would be hers.
Until something went wrong, and Mr Dyer turned his attention elsewhere …..
Charlotte grew up in a grand house, but she was horribly scarred by the smallpox that took all her family, save the brother who was away at school. Sadly that brother, Perry, who inherited the family home and fortune, grew up into a cruel drunk, who thought that tormenting his sister was wonderful sport. Every little thing she had, every dream she dreamed, he took away.
And he gave his sister away, when her lost a bet with Granville Dyer …..
The stories of the two women – which eventually crossed – were set against a third narrative.
George was a friend of Perry and Granville, who had eased his way into Perry’s life, as his steward and his lover. But George wanted more that that ….
Anna Freeman deployed her three narrators well, allowing them to give different interpretation, different impressions, of the same events. And she chose well, picking the right characters to tell their tales and the right characters to be simply seen through their eyes.
The characters are vividly drawn and their stories are colourful. The fights are compelling – and painful – reading.
I appreciated that this was as much a story about women fighting for their place in the world as women fighting in the ring.
But, as a whole, the book felt overblown, with too much detail, too many drawn-out scenes, and too many moments that stretched credibility a little too far.
It’s a good book, a very readable book, but I can’t help feeling that there was a better novel that might have been inspired by those words from ‘Horrible Histories’ ….
It’s certainly an unusual premise considering the time period; who know women were boxing way back then?
I had no idea before I read this book – that aspect felt very well researched and authentic.
I finished this last night! I liked it, but also thought it needed editing. No need for 437 pages. I will look out for more by Freeman, though.
Yes, I found enough to enjoy to be happy to try whatever Anna Freeman writes next, but a good edit , and a little tightening up of a couple of the story arcs, might have made this a great book rather than just a readable one.
I didn’t realise women’s boxing was so popular then. This certainly looks interesting although your closing comments mean I won’t be rushing to the bookshop, which is a blessing as I have far too many books to read!
Me neither – I’d say that this is worth reading, but maybe wait until it appears in paperback or at the library.
I’ve had this on my must read list since it was first announced so I’m sorry to hear that it doesn’t quite live up to expectations. Nevertheless, I shall still give it a go, although perhaps from the library shelves rather than buying a copy myself.
By the way, Briar, you might be amused to know that Mossup decided to ad lib one night last week and go and talk to some nice members of the audience sitting in the front row who had brought goodies with them. The actor who works with her was not amused. Silly man!