Moll is, or was, a real person. Born in the 16th century, Mary Frith lived, laughed, scandalized, and captivated London. Her exploits were famous enough that there was a play written about her, a comedy that caused Moll to laugh so hard and so loudly her friends had to shush her so that the actors could be heard. She drank, she stole, she was a fence, and she was famous. In this work, Ellen Galford imagines the live of Moll as seen through the eyes of the young woman who fell in love with Moll: Bridget, the daughter of an apothecary in London. Together, they survive the plague, puritans, and the pillories as Moll is tried for theft and her admittedly improper behavior. Throughout all of it, two things remain unchanging: Moll, herself, and Bridget’s love.
Before reading this book, I had never heard of Moll Cutpurse. And now, after learning more about her, it’s hard to believe she isn’t a work of fiction! In this book Moll is … well, she’s larger than life. As a young girl, her family wanted her to be a dutiful daughter; Moll wanted to be a boy. She wanted the freedom, the strength, the ability to make her own choices without having to bow her head to a father, an uncle, or a husband. She spins stories like Rumpelstiltskin spins straw into gold, with the same careless flamboyance and mischievous, lying smile. It doesn’t matter if it’s the truth, it only matters if it’s a good story. She smokes, she wears trousers, she gambles and gallivants, and if there’s trouble to be found, you’ll find Moll neck deep in it.
Bridget is not so free, and not so interested in defying conventions. She’s a dutiful daughter, helping to run her father’s shop — though, truth be told, she’s the one doing most of the work while he takes all the credit — and obeying him when he bids her leave London to escape her feelings for Moll. She’s a creature after her own pleasure, greedily drinking in Moll’s energy and love, but there was always something selfish about it. Bridget has no compassion for others, not really. When other women come for help, it’s Bridget’s aunt, or Moll, or even the dour owner of the alehouse, Mother Bunch, who show empathy and a willingness to help. It’s Moll who saves the day, again and again, returning to a shrill, angry Bridget who is willing to accept gifts as her due. Even the dog she gives Moll is someone else’s gift, someone who knew Moll and passed the puppy along, knowing Moll had recently lost her pet.
The writing in this story perfectly balances on the line of being at once instantly approachable, warm, and funny, while still tipping its hat to the slightly more stilted and formal writings of older works of fiction. The lives of the characters, both real and imagined, are well researched and presented in a way that made me run off to Google them to see if they had actually lived, or if they were simply characters thought up by the author. The pacing is fast as a whole month can be encompassed in one paragraph, telling of all the things Bridget learns while at her aunt’s house, cutting through something that may have slowed down the story so that we can get to the next snippet of Moll’s madcap adventures as she takes strange mushrooms from a Tinker woman, or wanders the streets of London.
The story is entertaining, the writing is compelling, and Moll is charming. But, I couldn’t find myself able to care for Bridget as a person. It’s not just the fact that she, after drugging Moll to sleep, fondles her breasts and sucks at them, knowing the other woman can’t respond (this after Moll comes running to her for help, having escaped a kidnapping attempt). It’s the fact that she’s needy, shrill, and petty. She sucked all the energy out of the story every time she talked. When we’re seeing the slice of life moments on the farm or in the shop, or even when she’s regaling us with Moll’s adventures, it’s fine. But whenever Bridget opens her mouth, she’s yelling at Moll, chastising her, making demands of her, or acting like a self-righteous snob. While it isn’t necessary to like every character, and sometimes it’s more fun to have deeply flawed narrators and main characters, I just kept wishing Bridget would, you know, go away so I could read Moll’s story.
Even though I’m not Bridget’s biggest fan by any stretch, I enjoyed this book. I enjoyed Moll, and the fact that this book had me looking for more — both about Moll and for books by this author — leaves me a bit on the fence, review-wise. However, when all is said and done, this story is worth the read. Hopefully your relationship with Bridget will be better than mine.