I really am trying to widen my reading horizons at the moment. After listening to Simon and Thomas‘ latest The Readers podcast on nonfiction, which I related to much more than I thought I would, it really hammered home the huge gap in my reading this year. Apart from the odd classic I desperately try to cram in, the majority of what I pick up could broadly be classed as ‘historical fiction’ of some kind. Although there is truly nothing better in my mind than a beautifully written, evocative tale that sweeps you away to an entirely different era, this is my naughty comfort zone, and one that I certainly haven’t solved, but thoroughly basked in this month by indulging in Anna Freeman’s quirky new novel; The Fair Fight.
Set in the mansions, brothels and mucky bars of 18th century Bristol, The Fair Fight tells the tale of Ruth; a young, impoverished girl who, due to her less-than-perfect looks and hard-headed nature, forges a name for herself as a female pugilist, backed and bought by the mysterious Mr Dryer. After a twisted fight leaves her battered and bruised beyond recognition, her patron drops her cold, moving on with his prospects towards her burly yet kindhearted husband, Tom; a venture for boxing titles that carries great risk for them all.
Split into three narrative voices; that of Ruth, Mr Dyer’s wife; Charlotte, and young fop George Bowden, we are afforded the opportunity to peek into the lives of people at every level of society at the time, witnessing predicaments as wide as George’s taboo passion for his boarding school roommate Perry and the alcoholism and deep-rooted apathy of a small-pox-scarred upper class woman, a woman whose boredom is finally eased by the arrival of the two young boxers at her country home.
Despite my misgivings about the depth and breadth of my reading habits at the moment, there is nothing more enjoyable than a well-written, researched, quirky bit of historical fiction and this is no exception. Inevitable comparisons will be drawn with the likes of Sarah Waters but such sweeping comments do annoy me a tad. This is a hugely entertaining, unique story in its own right and gives us a modern girls yet more literary heroines to gaze at admiringly. I would be lying if I said I hadn’t put my fists up myself in the bathroom mirror once or twice whilst reading this in imitation of the feisty, potty-mouthed pugilist.
Although I sometimes failed to see the point of George’s self-serving narrative, both Ruth and Charlotte are admirable, memorable characters, allowing us a true glimpse of female 18th century life at both ends of the spectrum. The contrast between Ruth’s poverty yet relative freedom of thought and spirit in contrast with the prison Charlotte finds within the lush walls of her sitting rooms certainly gives us food for thought and their spunk and vivacity both buoyed me up. There are no Disney princesses here; wonky teeth and scarred skin bring these very real characters to life in earnest.
With the varying narratives keeping the novel fresh and moving swiftly along, like all the best historical fiction, this story is littered with seemingly accurate period detail, colour, verve and grit that will find you talking like a Bristolian in no time. Despite all the ‘culls’, ‘pugs’ and ‘bifs’ a girl could ever want, the plot can seem a little sluggish at times, but this is nothing a good cat fight can’t cure…