This third-novel, released ten years before the modern-day drama Room brought the author to a wider audience, is an historical romance written from a modern feminist understanding. Donoghue allows the reader to believe for a time that young Mary Saunders may find a way out of the bindings of class, gender and culture, but then, as surely as forces of nature, those strictures of man close in, allowing her fewer and fewer options as time marches on. A modern reader may imagine she could have chosen differently, but the character is so well and fully drawn, so grounded in her time and place, that the ending ultimately feels inevitable, regardless how much we may wish it otherwise.
Scenes of Mary’s early days on the streets have a liberated joy to them; it is unclear how fully the author believes such joy and value could truly exist there, or is only reporting her character’s illusions, but either way, they offer a powerful contrast to the sense of grinding obligation which rules the rest of the story.
An alternate-reality Jane Austen perhaps; more true to the lives of a wider sampling of 18th century women than are the troubles of Austen’s well-to-do stratum. That it becomes, toward the end, a tragic exercise is only another way of saying it feels true to its times.
With over a dozen novels published to date, plus five story collections and numerous other stories, plays, screenplays and non-fiction, Donoghue is an impressive force in offering alternatives to the limited ways in which women have been allowed to appear throughout too much of fiction and history. One whose other works this reader will definitely be seeking out in future.