My obsession with historical fiction continued this week with this, the first adult novel from Sally Gardner. Gardner is an award-winning children’s novelist and, under the pseudonym Wray Delaney, has come up with, a fabulous tour of eighteenth century England in the company of a courtesan.
This is the tale of Tully Truegood. We meet her first in Newgate prison, awaiting trial for murder. Discovered to be with child, it seems likely that she will be hanged, though she will at least have a stay of execution until her baby is born. Here she has time to commit her life story to paper, beginning with her mother’s death soon after Tully is born. Left in the care of her father, Captain Truegood, a drunken gambler, she is left much to her own devices with only the family cook to care for her.
Reminiscent of Angela Carter or Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus, this is a story woven of magic realism. When Tully tells Cook that there is a boy trapped inside the grandfather clock, she finds that not everyone sees what she does. A girl called Pretty Poppet turns up with visitors now and again, but as Tully grows older Pretty Poppet remains the same age. Neither her father nor Cook pay much attention and when Tully is twelve her father, desperate to clear his debts, drags her out and marries her off.
The wedding service consisted of nothing more than the young gentlemen and myself giving our consents and signing the papers that the black spider eagerly put before us.
And that was that. I never saw my bridegroom’s face, nor was I informed of his name, nor the purpose of such a hasty marriage. Cook told me the next day that my husband had gone to join the army and I need think no more about it.
‘With luck,’ she said, ‘you will be a respectable widow by the time you’re fifteen.’
Life for Tully improves when her feckless father remarries. Queenie Gibbs takes Tully under her wing, though Tully must pay her way. Queenie runs a fairy house and, once she’s old enough, Tully is expected to join the other girls under Queenie’s protection and become a courtesan.
This book is full of magic, and Tully’s ability to bring forth the spirits of the dead, wow an audience with her levitation and spot a charlatan doctor, leads her to fame and wealth. When she falls in love, she knows that all is bound to end badly, the spectre of her mysterious husband haunting her.
From writing children’s books, this is most definitely a departure! Life in the fairy house is more magical than perhaps it would be in real life, but there is plenty of sex and not all goes well for Tully when confronted by wealthy clients who treat her as any other item that their money can purchase. There are a few dark scenes, but mostly this is a story of Tully’s triumphs over the men who would control her. I loved this novel and would highly recommend it.