H is an enigmatic moniker appropriately reflecting a character whose chameleon like existence has been driven by a need to survive against all that society and nature could throw at her. She is forced to confront the twin catastrophes of the Great Plague and the Great Fire of London with a combination of resourcefulness, empathy and humanity as she assumes a diminished role in society following a near death experience.
The author describes these strange adventures in the first person and by doing so the narrative is given emotional clarity as we, the reader, experience H’s spiralling descent from clergyman’s daughter to lowly courtesan, in a Clerkenwell bawd house – a head spinning journey that renders us nauseous with the speed and inequity of her fall yet admiring her fortitude and Trump like ability for re-invention.
The decline is triggered by a perfect storm of calamities that lead to an ineffable darkness descending over the domestic haven of her Aunt Madge’s London residence. Forced to sever the ties with her spiritual comfort blanket we observe all too familiar analogies with the fear and uncertainty caused by our modern day coronavirus equivalent. Charles ll’s government offered no furlough safety net though; instead a single lady, fallen on hard times, effectively had two options: the workhouse and a loss of liberty or selling your body for a dubious kind of freedom.
The subtle interlacing of momentous historical events with a supporting cast of characters whose rich assortment of seventeenth century foibles and stereotypes, from upper class sociopath to innocent dandy, make for a melting pot of London life that Samuel Pepys could rarely have imagined.
Yet the story is steered away from cliché by the pace of a plot that appears more instinctive than laboured and mirrors the truncated lives the people of this era had to endure with disease and disaster constant harbingers of premature death, and the need to thrive and ultimately triumph deflecting any thoughts of passive introspection.
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