Mary Saunders has always longed for luxury. Born to working-class parents, she lives with her mother, step-father, and baby half-brother in a basement in lower-class eighteenth century England. Though she is somewhat educated, she really has only two options in life; sewing, like her mother, or service. Mary rebels and loses her virginity, health, and respectability for a single red ribbon, falling into a life of prostitution and alcoholism. Based on the story of a maid who killed her mistress for a beautiful dress, Mary’s story is heartbreaking but surprisingly compelling and evocative of her time.
I will admit that I struggled with this book in the beginning. Mary was extremely difficult to care about. She is so frivolous that she covets the lifestyle of a prostitute just so she can have pretty clothes. Her sojourn in a rehabilitation facility and later time with the Jones family both open her eyes a little to the respectability of honest work, but her craving for luxury undoes her good intentions every time. It is something that is a little mystifying, especially given when she sees how the Joneses have worked up the career ladder to a life which she craves.
On the other hand, however, she is a very well-rounded character. Frustrating as she is, it’s easy to see how her childhood, friendships, and longings translate into the way she lives her life. Surprisingly we can see how prostitution does suit her, creepy as that feels. She seems to enjoy her power over men while reveling in the fact that she can buy beautiful clothes and spend most of her time laughing and drinking with her prostitute friends. It’s only when she gets seriously ill that she has to pursue ways of healing and thinks about where she has gone wrong.
This is, unfortunately, an unrelentingly negative book. We learn that Mary is in prison in the first few pages and then are sent back to figure out how she got there. Even when happier things happen in her life, the reader is always aware that they aren’t going to last. I had a span of about 10 pages where I loved the book; I thought Mary’s life was going to take a turn for the better. I had been struggling with the book and then I fell in love. I fell out of love about as quickly and finished it more because I had to than because I wanted to. It was just so depressing and Mary’s obsession with money, escape, and luxury became all-consuming even though she was perhaps the happiest she’d ever been in her life.
This is a story about a girl who makes very poor choices, all of which catch up to her in the end. Knowing that from the beginning makes this a challenge, but it is still an excellent book for its portrayal of eighteenth century London, the countryside, and the insights into Mary’s mind. In startling contrast to most historical fiction which focuses on the wealthy and privileged, I do think this book is worth reading.