This novel transported me to the darkest dirtiest corners and sewers of London in the 1860's. The heroine of this novel is the brilliant jewel, Sugar. Not only is she one of the most sought after prostitutes on Church Lane, but she's smart and believe it or not, the only adult character in the book who is sincerely virtuous.
Her john, William, is a ne'er do well, who aided by Sugar, is able to turn his life around and grow the family soap and perfume business. Unfortunately, there's not enough soap or scent to clean William's bad character and to perfume his perfidy.
The novel is almost 900 pages. During the three weeks that it took me to read it, I thought of Tess of D'uberville , Frankenstein, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde ,The Portrait of Dorian Gray, Upstairs, Downstairs, and, believe or not The Sound of Music. I've been accused of making crazy connections, but if you decide to read this tome, your mind might also wander.
The best parts of this book show how desperate the poor are and how insensitive and narcissistic the privileged are. They also show that misogyny is the one law which everyone follows in the Victorian Era. Men, hold the reins only because of their anatomy. Ironically they are easily, manipulated by their lust for women. Sadly, it doesn't matter that the men are weak, often drunk and just not that smart. They are men who employ, abuse and toss women out when they are no longer useful.
For example, William Rackham, is a is a taker. He takes advantage of Sugar's sexual favors, her astute business sense, her good nature and her ability to teach and nurture his daughter, Sophie, who has been raised as an orphan though she has two living parents. In contrast, William's brother, Henry, is a dreamer, really a wet dreamer, who flagellates himself for his earthly desires. He tries to immerse himself in holiness, but forgets that doing good works is more important than self punishment for dreams. His stagnation is self destructive.
Women are more sympathetically drawn. They work and don't rely on trust funds. There are hardworking servants, hardworking prostitutes and even a hardworking social reformer. Oh yes, there are the upperclass women who have to work hard in order to marry.
Sugar's mother, the proprietress of the whorehouse is Mrs. Castaway. She falls on hard times, educates Sugar by teaching her to read and gives her the skills requisite for the School of Hard Knocks . Sugar is offered to gentlemen far and wide as a virgin over and over. Agnes Unwin, on the other hand, is the unhinged child bride of William and certainly an "un wins". She has lived in the Abbot Langly a priory an institution which prepares her for marriage, a form of upper class prostitution. She learns to dress, dance, play the piano and speak a little French. She is so much a virgin, an innocent, she believes that her monthly bleeding is evidence of a serious illness. She understands social intercourse, but never in her six years of marriage understands sexual intercourse. Lastly, Mrs. Fox, a widow, a social reformer and
The fact that it is "Pomo," post modern for those of us who don't keep up, isn't an asset . The narrator spoke to me directly occasionally , then took off for long periods. It seemed that he got bored with me or busy with something else. When the narrator reappeared , he interrupted my involvement with the characters. (I'm just an old fashioned girl, or just old.) Yet I think the ambiguous ending is great. I believe that there are additional stories which explain or lead the reader. I won't read them. I like choosing Sugar's just dessert.