Friday, December 21, 2007

Underbelly and Upper Crust

I think there's some kind of poetic symmetry at work here (unintentionally!). My book for this month was The Remarkable Life and Times of Eliza Rose by Mary Hooper, which tells the story of a girl in 17th-century England who's been turned out of her home by the woman she thought was her stepmother and so goes to London to try to make her way in the world. It occurred to me as I was reading that the book is a great companion to the first book I read this year, No Shame, No Fear by Ann Turnbull and its sequel, Forged in the Fire. All three books take place in London in the mid- to late-1660's, but the characters' experiences of London are very different, shaped by who they are.

When Eliza's story starts, she's in Clink Prison for attempting to steal a pasty, since she's hungry, with no one to provide for her. While in prison, another girl teaches her to beg from passersby, giving the girls some money to buy "luxuries" (like a bed up off the floor) for themselves. Eventually, Eliza is bailed out of jail by a woman with less than honorable motives: Ma Gwyn, owner of a bawdy house and mother of the actress Nell Gwyn, who has as her ambition to become a mistress to King Charles II.

Nell rescues Eliza from Ma Gwyn's nefarious schemes, and Eliza acts as her maid as Nell pursues the opportunity to sleep with the king. She quickly succeeds, and when she becomes pregnant with the king's child, he sets her (and Eliza) up in a respectable brick house. Eliza, however, realizes how precarious their lifestyle is, and she longs for her own place in the world. Eventually, the mystery of Eliza's true family is solved, and she gets what she wished for.

Eliza Rose is filled with people who flaunt an immoral lifestyle: King Charles, who maintains multiple mistresses with no attempt to hide their existence from his wife; Nell Gwyn, who aggressively seeks to become one of those mistresses; Charles Duval, the celebrated highwayman; the king's "gang of wits," a group of young men who appear to spend most if not all of their time drinking, gambling, and bedding any woman they can. While Eliza manages to stay pure (for the most part - she does get involved in a scheme with Duval), she has a very ambivalent attitude toward the immorality, accepting and supporting Nell's quest for the king.

What a contast to the lifestyle of Susanna and Will in Turnbull's books! Their whole existence is defined by their religious beliefs. They both spend time in prison too, but their only crime is being a "Dissenter." Though they are strongly attracted to each other, they understand and accept that their attraction is going to be satisfied only within marriage. When they do fall to their desire, the first thing that occupies Will's attention afterward is finding work so he can marry Susanna and support her as soon as possible. I think it's kind of interesting to realize that if Will hadn't chosen to become a Quaker, he might have had a lifestyle similar to that of the king's "gang of wits" (though probably not quite as libertine, since he would be of the merchant class).

I'm fascinated by the thought that these characters are walking the same streets, but that their lives are so different. As Will says in Forged in the Fire, "I stooped and looked out over a spread of rooftops, jetties, innumerable chimneys with smoke rising up, and, far below, people thronging in the darkening streets. . . .So many people live in this city, I thought, so many other lives." Some of these lives, like Nell Gwyn's, are lived in pursuit of worldly pleasures; some, like Will and Susanna, have higher aims. Each book is just a little "slice of life" -- one person's limited experience of the huge megacosm that was London in the late 1660's. Putting their stories together helps me understand the richness and complexity of life - then and now- a little better.

I love historical fiction!!