Saturday, December 26, 2015
There are three narrators. Each is fully fleshed out and very real, as are the secondary characters.
Ruth is our heroine. Daughter of a madam, raised in a brothel alongside her beautiful sister, Dora, Ruth is a scrappy mess. Jealous of her sister’s earning potential, Ruth despairs of ever being able to follow in her footsteps, not understanding the utter awfulness of such a goal. One day, a patron catches her fighting (physically fighting) with her sister. Impressed by her determination and fearlessness, he arranges for her to begin a career of street fighting with his backing. (He essentially owns her.)
It’s a miserable existence: bloody, violent, crude—yet she loves it, craves the excitement, despite her many injuries and losses. Moreover, her indomitable spirit inspires the love of a good man.
The second protagonist is George. The fourth son of a gentleman, George didn’t have much of a future except what he could make for himself. Yet he started with significant advantages: a respected family name and remarkable good looks. He was sent to boarding school where he met and was assigned to room with another younger son, Perry. They became fast friends. Over time, they became lovers. Over more time, George grew caught in a web of mutual dependence that he could not or would not escape. Compared to those who started out with nothing but who built lives for themselves, the self-interested George squandered a life of potential.
Finally, we meet Charlotte, Perry’s sister. Scarred by small pox, she survived the epidemic that claimed Perry’s older brother and made Perry heir to a fortune. Life experiences made her timid. Her scars keep her hidden from society. Her brother’s cruelty turns her cruel in return, but he is her only target. She tries to escape from her prison by marrying, but knows no one but friends of her brother. Perry will not let her have George. She is forced to marry a wealthy (new money) man named Granville.
Granville is a despicable, grasping character. He doesn’t want Charlotte to be unhappy, but he doesn’t want to put himself out to please her. He is absorbed by his own pursuits: gambling on street fighting and visiting his mistress. The mistress happens to be Dora. And Granville is the patron who owns Ruth, pushing her into ever more dangerous bouts.
It’s hard to explain why this novel is so wonderful, when so much of what these people face, or what they do, is unpleasant. The lives of the disadvantaged characters are unbearable to contemplate, and yet, their resilience and determination give them an advantage over the well-to-do, who are horrible people. Street fighting, despite the sordid settings and brutality, lend the fighters a nobility and source of pride in accomplishment, even when they lose.
Freeman’s use of the slang of the gutters, her descriptive settings, her ability to show the psychology of the characters, their suffering and their hopes, bring this tale fully to life. The unflinching way she presents the reality of their lives make this story impossible to put down.