Bristol. A brothel. The late 1700s. Two sisters squabble and scrap, watched by an interested gentlemen visitor. The older sister becomes his molly. The younger sister, Ruth, he sets to boxing professionally at a local pub The Hatchet. It changes Ruth’s life.
I abhor boxing, I hate to see it on television and so I hesitated over this book. I’m glad I didn’t. From page one the book is alive with late 18th century Bristol, everything about it is believable. Most of all I liked Ruth, I wanted to know her story. This meant I got a bit irritated when the story left her and transferred instead to the gentlemen who act as boxing managers and who gamble every night at fights. I had no patience with them, and turned every page wanting more of Ruth.
At the heart of this book are two women trapped by their circumstances, their birthplace, their positions in society. I wanted Ruth to better herself, to see her break away from her origins. Ruth is brothel-born, Charlotte is destined to embroider samplers. Surely they can have nothing in common? Will they meet and what will happen if they do?
To set the novel in its historical context, here are some historical landmarks. In 1789 George Washington was elected President of the United States. The French Revolution of 1789 to 1799 led into the Napoleonic Wars in 1803. In 1796 Edward Jenner administered the first smallpox vaccination, a cure which comes too late for some characters in The Fair Fight. In 1798 Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’.Freeman [above] does not back off showing the squalor, the sordid living conditions in the brothel and the boxing injuries which can mean empty stomachs for months. She also shows the richness of the merchant houses, the profusion of liquor and sweetmeats for those who can afford them, the snobbery and bitchiness.
I read to the end to see if Charlotte revolted against the disinterest of her brother and husband, to see if Ruth would be saved by boxing or whether she would return to her roots.
‘The Fair Fight’ by Anna Freeman [Weidenfeld & Nicholson]