I really enjoyed Marina Fiorato’s last novel “The Double Life Of Kit Kavanagh” which was a vibrant account of an extraordinary gender-challenging woman who, away from the author’s fictional account of her life, became the first female Chelsea Pensioner in tribute to her distinguished military service. Here Marina Fiorato returns to purely imaginative historical fiction, taking her inspiration for her main character the young woman portrayed in John Everett Millais’ painting “The Bridesmaid”.
Fiorato recasts this woman as Annie Stride, a prostitute whom we encounter at the beginning about to recreate the recent suicide of her only friend by jumping off Waterloo Bridge. She is stopped by a passer-by, Francis Maybrick Gill, a Pre-Raphaelite artist who nutures Annie as his model and muse. There is a simmering tension throughout as Annie attempts to put her miserable past behind her whilst something is askew with her relationship with the artist.
The plot moves from Central London to Florence as Gill takes Annie with him for further inspiration. His main theme is the fallen woman throughout history and Annie finds herself his Mary Magdalene. There’s admittedly a slight dip in interest when the novel first moves to Italy but the author makes up for that with an excellently handled last third.
When I moved into my new house I was delighted to find a Camelia in the garden, but after this I’m not so sure as the flower here plays a slightly menacing role, becoming overly dominant in Annie’s new life, from its cloying smell to the artist’s obsession with Alexandre Dumas’ “La Dame Aux Camelias”.
Plot, characterisation and atmosphere are handled here so well that this book confirms Marina Fiorato’s reputation as a strong historical story-teller. She gets across the darkness and obsession present throughout the novel very well indeed and never overplays her hand, avoiding the melodrama it could so easily have become. Like the best historical fiction, the history is incorporated seamlessly creating a seductive yet chilling tale.
Crimson and Bone is published by Hodder & Stoughton on 18th May 2017. Many thanks to the publishers for the advance review copy.
Back when I was in Primary School a very elderly teacher used to come in to teach the class singing. She taught a selection of traditional ballads that I’d never heard before or mostly, never since but there was one that has always stuck in my head. It was the tale of “Sweet Polly Oliver” who “lay musing in bed/when a sudden strange fancy came into her head”. She decides to dress in her dead brother’s clothes and enlist as a soldier to be with the man she loves who was serving in the army. This song probably dating from the 1840’s ran through my head whilst I was reading Marina Fiorato’s impressive seventh novel.
Kit Kavanagh decides to do the same as Polly Oliver after her husband takes the Queen’s Shilling in their Dublin bar in 1702. Kit follows him, ending up in conflict in Italy as a member of the Royal Scots Grey Dragoons. This novel has a lot to tell us about gender. Kit purchases a silver implement to provide the necessary physical adaptations and is increasingly able to throw herself into the life of a soldier. She faces a dilemma when she begins to have feelings for her Captain and becomes confused by his attentions to her. I was urging her on to find her husband but that is only part of the story and Kit’s tale becomes increasingly fascinating. At times I did think things were straining the bounds of plausibility and it was not until I finished the book that I discovered it is strongly based on fact. Kit Kavanagh did serve in the Dragoons, became the first female Chelsea Pensioner because of her distinguished army service and was commended by Queen Anne. She could have feasibly been the inspiration for “Sweet Polly Oliver” written in the next century.
Just as the ballad of Polly Oliver was running through my mind there’s an earlier Irish ballad which was obviously running through Fiorato’s as “Arthur McBride” is present throughout. It is the tale of two cousins who encounter a pair of soldiers who attempt to press them into the army. I very much like the way Fiorato uses this throughout as a “touchstone” for the story she is telling.
The tale twists and turns sometimes in surprising directions and I was rooting for Kit right from the opening scenes when she is offered money by a stranger travelling in a carriage to roll down the hill so he could view what was under her dress to her final days in the Chelsea Hospital, reflecting a life where, for a time, she had something very different under her clothing.
It is well-written, vibrant, bawdy (there’s a few new swear words to be learnt here) and highly readable. The fact that it tells the tale of a forgotten extraordinary woman is icing on the cake. I think Marina Fiorato is for me a very good find and I am looking forward to reading her other historical novels.
(and very close to being 5*)
The Double Life Of Mistress Kit Kavanagh was published by Hodder in 2015. Many thanks to the publishers and Bookbridgr for the review copy.