The fictional memoir of an actual madam who ruled Gold Rush–era San Francisco.
Except for her extraordinary beauty, Arabella Godwin is no different from any well–brought-up young lady in New York City circa 1837. Then misfortune intervenes: Her mother dies of consumption, her father kills himself, and instead of taking in the new orphans, her wealthy grandfather sends her two older siblings to boarding school and Arabella and youngest brother Lewis to the chilly confines of a hardscrabble farm in the Finger Lakes town of Livy. There, Arabella’s Aunt Agatha and Uncle Elihu force the orphans to endure a new life of endless chores and frequent corporal punishment. Gradually, Arabella adjusts with the help of a teenage romance with Jeptha, an angelic looking drunkard’s son—whom her scheming cousin Agnes also loves. However, when Jeptha gets religion and Arabella is raped by her brutish cousin Matthew, the resulting pregnancy and induced miscarriage will propel her out of Livy. After a brief stint as a millworker, Arabella returns to New York City to rescue Lewis, who’s been stabbed. Eventually, supporting ne’er-do-well Lewis forces Arabella into prostitution—it’s the only way to secure large amounts of money quickly. Aided by a newspaperman client, Arabella exposes the corrupt policeman and the ward boss who had persecuted Lewis and cheated her. When she learns that her grandfather and older brothers are searching for her, she avails herself of this last chance to leave “the life” behind, but freeing herself completely will involve murder. Now married to preacher Jeptha, with whom she has been reunited after managing to wrest him away from her rival, Agnes, Arabella heads for California. The couple’s mission is to convert San Francisco miners, and since Arabella has been intercepting Agnes’ letters, Jeptha remains, so far, ignorant of her fall from grace. Margulies’ recreation of Arabella’s milieu and astute observations of the hypocritical sexual mores of a bygone time lend resonance to this episodic epic.
A convincing melodrama in which the victim takes charge.