Coates makes his debut with a comprehensive biography of his great-great-grandmother—a long narrative that’s as much a history of a time and place as it is of a family legacy.
This first volume of a planned trilogy covers the first 18 years of Sarah Valentine’s life. She was born in the East End slums of London in 1819, the first child of Jim and Sarah Valentine. Three years later, her brother Jimmy was born, followed by several additional siblings. Most survived, but two didn’t—and that was just the start of a chain of tragedies that would plague the family. The abject poverty of the district, which Coates describes here so vividly, is barely imaginable today: several families sharing a single room, sewage spilling from overflowing privies in courtyards and alleys, children wearing threadbare clothing and walking the streets barefoot in the winter, no heat, no food, and polluted water (children were frequently given ale to drink, as it was safer). When Sarah was 8, she joined a pack of thieves and pickpockets, which was made up of destitute children. She would return home late at night, drunk and defiant. Eventually, when she was about 12, her parents decided they could no longer control or care for her, and they placed her in the Shoreditch Workhouse. Sarah would find herself in and out of that workhouse over the years. Coates has clearly done his research in this book, and its pages are filled with minutiae, such as street and tavern names, as well as rambling dissertations on the growth of slums in London. Much of this will be of interest to historians, and there are enticing tidbits that readers can pick up along the way; for example, the author notes that men’s trouser zippers didn’t come into fashion until later in the Victorian era—they were frowned upon as causing improper focus on the male anatomy. However, there’s too much repetition of horrid, depressing conditions, which are well-established upfront. The excessive detail sometimes distracts from the compelling, heartbreaking story, which will make readers anxious to get back to the characters.
A relentlessly downbeat account, but the author still manages to bring his ancestors’ stories to life.