This second volume of a trilogy focuses on the life and times of Sarah Valentine, the author’s great-great-grandmother, in London.
Coates’ (Sarah Valentine, No Great Expectations, 2016) sequel covers seven years, beginning in early 1839 when Valentine turned 18 and was moved from the children’s ward to the adult ward in the Shoreditch Workhouse (a government-sponsored refuge of sorts offering food and shelter) in London’s East End. Here she discovered that nearly half of the inmates were mentally ill; with few available facilities, they were just warehoused with the other indigent women. The ward remained filthy and dangerous. But salvation appeared in the form of Freddy Linford, one of two brothers Valentine met while working as a cleaner in a tailor shop (“Freddy was quite the dandy with bright shirts and colourful cravats; his personality matched his loud clothing and it was during the period Sarah worked at the shop that he often flirted with her. Sarah did not discourage him, finding his attentions not unpleasant”). He was at Shoreditch teaching some of the workhouse women how to set up a sewing operation in the institution. Ultimately, Linford arranged for Valentine to be released and proposed marriage to her. But he possessed a dark side, and his intervention led to a whole new series of catastrophes for young Valentine. Despite these setbacks, she started to take shape as a resolute adult, still vulnerable but with ever strengthening determination. Coates has developed more of a narrative footing in this volume. The story focuses on Valentine and her family, and the work begins to read a bit like engrossing historical fiction (complete with invented dialogue), although the author states clearly at the start that the details have been carefully researched and are accurate. In this sequel, the conditions of poverty in East London form the context and backdrop, rather than the bulk of the text. Coates’ tale presents a tapestry of rigid 19th-century British society and the extraordinary physical and mental cruelty that defined the treatment of the lower classes by those of a higher social station. In one particularly brutal episode, Valentine, toiling as a live-in “Maid of all Work” for an upper-middle-class family, was severely beaten for having committed the unforgivable faux pas of hanging the family’s clean laundry outside to dry.
An absorbing and scathing indictment of 19th-century British government and society that ends on an unexpectedly hopeful note.