London, late 1660s. The Strange Adventures of H tells the story of the childhood and young adulthood of the eponymous H. She and her sisters are orphaned at a young age. She is sent to London to live with a kind aunt, but falls prey to her licentious cousin and loses her home in the chaos of the Great Plague of London. Her only means of survival is to turn to prostitution. She makes friends, suffers setbacks and successes, and is eventually reunited with her family.
SUMMARY – The 10-second review
Historic – Highly readable/page turner – British – Bawdy but not graphic – Well written – Feminist slant.
The Strange Adventures of H is far and away the most entertaining book I have read in months. It’s a joyous mesh of some great English novels of the 17th, 18th, 19th and even 20th centuries. It’s a bawdy, vivid, thrilling romp set to a backdrop of plague, fire, brothels and playhouses.
Innocence to experience
Set in the late 1660s, The Strange Adventures of H brings to mind the worlds of Defoe’s Moll Flanders, Fielding’s Tom Jones and Cleland’s Fanny Hill and has a raciness that fits in well with the novels of the era.
The novel has a strong feminist theme familiar from the writings of Mary Wollstonecraft and the Brontë sisters, to name but a few. H and her friends frequently decry the powerlessness of women and their financial and social dependency on men. Their driving ambition is to live independent, self-determined lives. Many (by no means all) of the men in the book are pathetic, cruel or stupid, and the women have little patience with or respect for them. But this novel is not a polemic and the ideology is doled out lightly. For example, quoting Mother (the owner of the brothel where H lives and works), H reflects:
“There are some women you may never get to the bottom of,’ she would say, “but you can size up any man in a twinkling.” I did not think that Mother liked the male sex very much at all, but rather as my Aunt Madge had not liked to eat celery; it was not an aversion, she merely did not see the merit in it.The Strange Adventures of H | Sarah Burton
The Strange Adventures of H is also an archetypical rags-to-riches and social outcast-to-social-success (or -marriage) tale, reminiscent of stories like Great Expectations, Vanity Fair or even Jane Eyre.
What keeps it true to the 17th century, however, is its raw bawdiness, amorality and devil-may-care boisterousness. Politically, the monarchy (Charles II) is back, Cromwell’s austere Puritanism has been ousted and the playhouses and brothels are thriving once again.
It’s not all fun and games. The revels of the rich are contrasted with poignant scenes and hints of the misery endured by the poor. There are subthreads in the story related to infanticide, child abuse and child prostitution, disease, domestic abuse and more.
As if all that great storytelling isn’t enough, to top it all this novel is wonderfully written. Burton is a professional writer and academic, and boy does she know her literary history, but it’s hard to believe that this is her first novel. For a start, she pulls off an almost magical feat of making you feel like you’re reading a novel actually written in the 17th C, which just happens to be extremely easy to read. I was at a loss to figure out how she had done it. Perhaps it’s just that the story, setting and characters are so vivid that your suspension of disbelief is complete.
Taken together, it all adds up to a rich, enthralling novel. One of those books you race to get through and then bitterly regret turning the last page.
My thanks to Netgalley for giving me a free copy of this book. All my reviews are 100% honest and unbiased, regardless of how I acquire the book.
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