The University of East Anglia has a world class Creative Writing Programme that has created many of today's finest authors. Born in Bolton in 1965, Janette Jenkins studied Literature and Philosophy at degree level before getting her MA in creative writing. Her previous novels and short stories have earned her the title of one of the best storytellers at work today. But does her latest book live up to her high standards?
London 1899, a city teeming with businesses, beggars, high and low society and a mixture of all sorts of characters. As the century is about to turn, so there is much to hope for among the poorer of London's refugees, and for one family it needs a miracle.
Ivy Stretch has left her previous lodgings in a hurry and now her and her two girls are trying to get a room in the establishment of a Doctor Swift with his wife and two maids of all work. The place is dirty, shabby and running with water, but it's a haven to the family and to Jane in particular who at sixteen is bent over with diseased bones, giving her the name of cripple. For a short while all is going well enough until Ivy's husband, a wastrel and drunkard manages to find them. Fearful that he'll get them into trouble the family moves on but leave Jane behind to cope by herself. It might sound heartless but it happened a lot and for Jane she doesn't expect much from life anyway, though she will miss her family.
Jane's willing to do anything for her food and lodgings, so when Mrs Swift asks if she is clean and willing to aid her husband, she agrees straight away. Maybe another girl would have questioned the Doctor's business, but Jane is used to her deformity and soon learns to keep her mouth shut about the doctor's patients, who are mainly actresses living in various boarding houses across town. They have problems of a 'female nature' with 'obstructions' that require removal. The doctor prescribes a purgative and Jane helps with the mopping up.
When this strange pair becomes acquainted with a music hall star, Johnny Treble and his many women, trouble is about to fall on them all. The police become involved and suddenly the doctor is required to present his certificates of qualifications. For Jane the future is even more terrifying as she cannot produce more than her good name and with a cripple that's not going to keep her out of prison. This could end very badly for all concerned.
***Questions of Morality***
The author brings to life a London of mixed morals, where women can find help as long as they can pay and stay under the police radar. For the times the doctor's profession wasn't that uncommon, shocking though it may seem. That a young, crippled girl aided him wouldn't be out of place either, it would have been that or begging for Jane with the oldest of all professions shut to her. But Jane has a sense of right and wrong despite the nature of her work and she is a favorite among the chorus girls who like her gentle hands and caring nature.
The book teems with life, the tawdry, tantalizing and the brutal. With one rule for people with a family name to uphold against the common women who need to get rid of their 'burdens', this isn't a book to be read lightly, though it doesn't set out to shock or offend the reader. Things like this happened and but for a jealous woman it might have gone on. The ending is a mixture of sadness and a strange sense of rightness, though I did find it went against all I expected.
The character of Jane is a rare one and put me in mind of the young girl in Tracey Chevalier's story of a fossil collector. She's an innocent in some ways but knows the nature of her work is wrong. Still, as long as the need is there and the woman not too far gone, she does as she's told. As she stumbles along behind the 'Doctor' she makes all sorts of friends from the world of theatre houses to the boy who carries advertising boards for a drunken priest. I felt like she became the embodiment of all the hypocrisy of the times and the people who were two-faced.
Though there are several other characters, it's Jane who makes the book so readable and the sorry plight of the innocent drawn into anything to get by. There are some lovely times when the family is together and reasonably happy. A touch of the Dickens's Magic with Christmas feasts and having a rare day of enjoyment to set against a lifetime of bleakness. The reader learns from the prologue that the doctor and his fat wife were once involved in the theatre in a much different way. It adds piquancy to the tale especially when the wife becomes so fat she can't even run away!
Though the story is unusual, the book is mainly about the characters and does a very good job of producing something that captures the reader's interest straight away. The period setting is faultless and I loved the way that even the beggars were given personalities rather than a group setting. I thought the descriptions of the times must be accurate and the London of a new century a reminder that some things may appear to change, but at heart stays the same.
I suppose it could be called a tale of morals, but I thought the actual 'deeds' were handled in a very sensitive way. I can't say agreed with what was happening, but it's the kind of book that you don't have to take sides against. It's a story of how people managed at a time when getting by was the only way to live. It doesn't ask large questions, but there is a question of morality in its pages. It's also very funny at times and I kept thinking of the actress Jane Horrocks as I read the title. If you can put aside the parts that might be objectionable to some then this is a very good read and a study in working class families. Definitely one to watch, I recommend both the book and the author.
This was another library find and at 281 pages is a quick read. It's a newish book, recently published, so a rare find for me.
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