“There were women out there beating each other up while Jane Austen was sipping tea” is the tagline to Anna Freeman’s pacy, pounding début The Fair Fight (W&N, August). Set in the late 18th Century, at a time when female pugilists (boxers) were fighting it out for glory in rings across Bristol and London, it is historical fiction with a Sarah Waters-esque twist, showing us a different and dirtier side of Georgian England.
Winner of the Tibor Jones Pageturner Prize in 2013, Freeman—a creative writing lecturer at Bath Spa and a performing slam poet—was inspired to write The Fair Fight while reading one of her niece’s Horrible Histories books. She says: “I had no idea that it happened but female prize-fighters used to write challenges to each other in newspapers. I read about Elizabeth Stokes who, in one example, answered Ann Field’s taunt with: ‘I, Elizabeth Stokes, of the City of London . . . do assure her . . . that the blows I shall present her with will be more difficult to digest than any she ever gave her asses.’
“I just thought that was fascinating. When I see pieces of real history like that I get excited and moved,” Freeman adds. “I like it when history feels near.”
With a host of nefarious interweaving characters, The Fair Fight takes us from the brothels and street fights of Bristol to the townhouses and noble prize-fighting of genteel London, by way of The Hatchet Inn, a Bristolian pub famed for its boxing bouts—a pub that Freeman spent six years working in herself. It is filled with the colourful language of the day, with “cullies” coming to brothels to spend paid time with “mollies”, giving each other punches to the “chops” while unwanted “babbers” get in the way.
Freeman says she did “a massive amount of research before I started writing it. I read a lot of history books because I love it, but although there were so many really cool words and phrases I discovered, I chose to keep in the ones that you could guess what they mean straight away. It is amazing how many we still use—like ‘chops’ for jaw. I find that kind of thing fascinating.”
Strength and spinsters
The novel starts with Ruth, who is raised tough and surly in a brothel and is propelled quickly into the world of female pugilists by the churlish and quiet Granville Dryer.
Freeman knew from research “that most of the women boxing were either prostitutes or suffering in poverty. It wasn’t something you often chose to do for fun, but you got paid good money compared to some of the other dangerous and painful things you could be paid for.”
Despite her strength in the boxing ring, like all women at the time, Ruth has very little weight outside of it; Freeman says that she is “really interested in restricted resource, a bit like that Bear Grylls programme ‘The Island’. For Ruth, a lot of the time it is about looking at what you would do when you are at the base of yourself. What do you do when you’re at the bottom?
“I read some amazing diaries of Georgian women. In Amanda Vickery’s The Gentleman’s Daughter: Women’s Lives in Georgian England [Yale] there are all these extracts from the diaries of spinsters and loads of them are so bitter and angry—and fair play to them, they have no power. Of course they are angry. I could recognise their tone.”
At some point in the novel, many of the characters are forced to ask themselves how they will react when they are at “the base of themselves”—be it Granville’s Machiavellian schoolfriend George, who is desperate to increase his position in society; Dora, Ruth’s sister and Dryer’s favourite “molly”; or Perry, whose aristocratic place in society is forced upon him in terrible circumstances.
With her fate dictated to her by men, the novel’s most touching moments come as the relationship between Ruth and Charlotte (Perry’s younger sister who shares Ruth’s fire for boxing) develops further. “With Charlotte, the main thing I wanted to capture is that famous ‘big mistake’ moment in ‘Pretty Woman’; you’ve been pushed into a position that you didn’t chose to be in and people look at you a certain way because you’re in that position. And then you seize empowerment. That feeling of coming back to the situation as powerful as opposed to being a victim, that’s what I think Charlotte’s unwanted marriage becomes.”
Freeman is currently writing her second novel, which also takes a slightly different look at women in the past. She says she loves “seeing examples of women doing things that you wouldn’t expect. There are a lot [of examples] when you start looking, and I think I’ve created characters that don’t necessarily buy into the society they are in—they think and feel like we do. And that’s possible because they are all slight outsiders. Both Ruth and Charlotte are isolated from normal society in different ways, so they have been able to grow their own opinions.”
Formats EB/English trade paperback/HB/unabridged audio download
ISBN 9780297871958/ 72/89/1409155904
Rights Riverhead (North America)
Editor Arzu Tahsin
Agent Sophie Hignett and James Pusey, Tibor Jones
1978 Born in Bristol
2006 BA in Creative Writing at Bath Spa University
2010 MA in Creative Writing at Manchester Metropolitan University
2012-present Lecturer in Creative Writing at Bath Spa
2014-present Part-time producer at Bristol Old Vic; produced its spoken word night
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