Whilst browsing the library shelves, I was pleased to discover an historical novel based around the events of George IV's coronation, especially as I'd quite recently finished a biography about George's much detested wife, Queen Caroline. The Georgian and Regency period is one I particularly enjoy and if I had to choose a different period of history in which to live, it's the one I'd opt for. The industrial revolution was underway, Britain was a huge world power and the age was one of elegance and sophistication. There was, however, an underbelly to society which was none of these things and this novel flits between the two giving the reader a glimpse into both worlds.
Nell Wingfield is a young printmaker who works in her family's print shop, most often printing political pamphlets and cartoons for distribution amongst the inhabitants of London. Distraught following the death of her mother, seventeen year old Nell was duped into working in a London brothel entertaining the wealthy and influential men of St James but events in the 'quality house' bring Nell to her senses and she escapes to return to her family home. Soon after her return to the print shop, Nell receives a visit from the mysterious Mr Edwards, a face from this former life, who tells her of the murder of a former client, Sir David Fairfax, at the brothel and one which he expects Nell to assist in the investigation of the crime, threatening her with the gallows if she refuses.
This is the first published novel by Helen Pike who has a degree in history and also in creative writing and her in-depth knowledge of both the social and political aspects of the period is very evident in this book. In Nell Wingfield she has created a heroine who is innocent yet gutsy and with a zest for life. The descriptions of the sights and sounds of Regency London are so detailed and vividly described that it's very easy to picture Nell at the mercy of the many unscrupulous individuals living in the city streets.
Since her mother's death, Nell has been the glue that held her family together but as her story begins her step-father who Nell describes as 'a God botherer' has recently been sent to prison for blasphemy, her older brother, Tom who had radical leanings has been hanged on a trumped up charge and her younger sister, Meg, is simple. Running the print shop is all on the shoulders of Nell whilst her newly released step-father wanders the streets composing his hellfire sermons. Although Isiah Douglas, Nell's stepfather, owns the print works in Friday Street just off Cheapside in the City of London, he prefers to spend his days as a hellfire preacher leaving Nell alone to run the print shop.
Life in early nineteenth century London, living cheek by jowl with one's neighbours is vividly described in all its festering stink. This isn't the world of the haute ton but everyday life amidst the up-and-coming middle classes and the ever-present and poverty-stricken lower classes. Nell, however, has been involved with the nobility though under rather unfortunate circumstances and she begins her narrative by telling the tale of her time working in the 'quality house', a euphemistic term for a brothel, of Mother Cooper.
Mother Cooper, as one would expect of a madam, is a thoroughly unpleasant character who has no qualms about putting an innocent such as Nell to working as a prostitute and she is given initially to the very unpleasant and somewhat sexually perverted Sir Robin Everley, whilst her friend and colleague Hetty is given to the more appealing Sir David Fairfax. After one night, the two aristocrats exchange places and Nell strikes up not only a physical relationship with Sir David but it develops into one of friendship and mutual affection. Sir David, though not a complete radical, is in favour of the King remaining married to Queen Caroline for the sake of political stability, though many of his peers are as keen as George IV to see the back of the lady in question.
The story began very well. The back story of Nell's time at Mother Cooper's was engrossing, as was the rather gruesome description of her brother's hanging, all of which was embellished with enough historical detail to add up to a real page turner. The writing is so descriptive that the reader is left in no doubt that the streets of London in the early nineteenth century were smelly places, not just because of the filth in the streets but also because of the lack of personal hygiene amongst the general population.
Unfortunately, as the book progressed, instead of developing into an enthralling historical mystery it strayed into more political waters instead. I'm sure for someone with a keen interest in the politics of the day, the story would prove very appealing but for someone such as myself who only has a passing interest in Georgian politics, it proved rather boring. I don't deny that the much of the story rests on the political situation of the time, not only the Queen Caroline Affair but also the Cato Street Conspirary but I just felt this was laid on rather too thickly at the expense of keeping the momentum of the story going. As the author is a historian by training, there is a wealth of historical detail which is incredibly interesting but I did feel that she was too keen in imparting this knowledge, even when it slows the plot. I'm afraid in the end I skipped several paragraphs which tended to contain only political information, after all it soon became evident that Tories two hundred years ago were every bit as corrupt and ineffective as they are today.
As regards characterisation, I can't fault the author. She absolutely brings the population of this long ago world to life and Nell is a very engaging heroine and the reason why I kept reading. She has an indomitable spirit and I was keen to see her overcome her difficulties and find, if not happiness, at least a measure of contentment. The secondary characters, too, are all superbly described and realistic, especially the loathsome and despicable Sir Robin and it certainly brings home the fact that the general population then were at the mercy of the male social elite. This was a time before the Married Woman's Property Act, so their wives weren't much better off either.
This is Helen Pike's first novel and although I enjoyed it for its social history, which I found fascinating and informative, I do feel the story would have been more readable if the political content had been pared down somewhat. I will certainly look out for her next novel which I hope will have a better balance between plot and politics.
I'm giving the book 3 stars which is probably a little ungenerous but it just isn't good enough for 4 stars. It really falls somewhere in between.
The book is available in paperback from 1p plus postage and also in Kindle format, though this is for quite a hefty £6.83.