Though his father passed away in the late 1770s, Joseph Chapman’s mother cobbles together a decent life selling fish and partaking in fights. She meets an unfortunate end after fighting a particularly vicious opponent, leaving Joseph and his young sister, Sarah, penniless. Having no alternatives, Sarah is sent to an orphanage/prison in London, while Joseph is placed at the Little Eastcheap Free School for Unfortunate Boys. The upheaval weighs on Joseph, but he finds no small measure of solace from the kindness offered by a boy named Potter “Chowder” Gorham. Although the time they share together at the school is marred by a licentious governor, cruel staff, and the vicious nature of some of the other boys, Joseph and Chowder develop a deep bond. And when Chowder and Joseph are both placed with apprenticeships in the city, hope blooms that they may share more time together.
With the full confidence of Joseph’s master, a bookseller named Mr. Jackson, Joseph and Chowder begin to fall in love. For several weeks, they enjoy one another’s company as often as possible. However, disaster strikes when Joseph and Chowder are discovered. Chowder is soon imprisoned and Joseph is on the run. Before Joseph falls victim to a terrible betrayal, however, he manages to make connections with a few powerful people who are very sympathetic to him and his nature. Once Joseph lands behind bars himself, he never stops worrying about Chowder and tries to help him however he can. The one sliver of hope comes by way of a visitor, an acquaintance of one of the connections Joseph made before being locked away. With the help this man offers, there is a slim chance Joseph and Chowder will survive and be reunited.
Joseph Chapman, My Molly Life is a story told from first-person perspective and, as we later find out, is something of an autobiography of (the fictional) Joseph Chapman. I think this choice in narrative style allows for the realities of life in 1770s London to be made amply clear without resorting to long descriptive paragraphs. Through Joseph, readers enjoy first-hand accounts of how life is lived. This helps establish the system of employment-by-apprenticeship, medical aid consisting of bleeding the bad “humours,” the supposed evils of bathing, and the villification of the poor by sending people to workhouses. Because this is Joseph’s autobiography, we get to follow him from as young an age as the character can remember to his present day, which is 1778 or so, when he is about sixteen. Most of the events, however, are concentrated around what happens in the time between his mother dying and his being imprisoned and the resolution of that event.
One of the benefits of this format is that it organizes the action in a very neat and linear fashion. It is easy to separate the major life events, and the villians thereof, into chunks. The first is the govenor at the free school, the next is ostensibly a too-forward aristocrat, followed by Chowder’s master’s wife, and so on. I liked this quasi-parade of villains. I think it reflects a bit of the meanness of the era, as well as the (a)morality of upper classes, and the fact that no matter what stage of life you are at, there will be people to pooh-pooh you. There was a bit of an unfortunate side effect for me in that the supporting characters, of which there are many, come off as a bit flat. Even Chowder felt a bit like a placeholder. Thankfully, there were at least a few brief moments where Joseph engages in a little critical analysis regarding his feelings for Chowder, given that they only had a very brief time together at the school and only managed to reconnect briefly before being imprisoned separately.
Another aspect I was interested in is how Joseph approaches his attraction to men. It is very clear that society at large absolutely and completely condems and damns men who love men (and, of course, the physical act of sex between them). It is also clear that Joseph writes about his feelings is a far more personal manner. He doesn’t seem to go through a crisis of identity, but slowly realizes his preferences when, during his first night in the free school, Chowder offers not sex, but mere touch—a hand on the shoulder, a pair of arms to lie in. This simple human kindness slowly makes Joseph aware that he is attracted to Chowder. Although there are no real spicy scenes on-page to speak of, it seems pretty clear these two just enjoy slowly exploring all the ways their attraction can manifest. We also come to understand that Joseph, despite not having a very long acquaintence with Chowder, is devoted to him. There are several times a wealthy would-be patron for Joseph attempts to press his suit and Joseph has to explain that he only loves Chowder and that being intimate is something he wishes to do only with him.
As far as the writing goes, I think Lovejoy balances well the task of conveying the era while still being very readable to modern audiences. The prose is generally very well written, though there were a few errant punctuation marks in my copy that sometimes obfuscated dialogue from prose. Nevertheless, the short chapters and clear timeline made the book very readable. There are plenty of context clues to figure out period-specific usages (such as “divers” to mean “diverse” and “situation” to mean “employment” in some, er, situations).
Overall, I think this is a fantastic read for any fans of historical fiction. I liked that Lovejoy works with a very definite time period and includes nods to current (at the time) events, like the colonies in the New World and that “chocolate” in this era a beverage enjoyed by only the very wealthy. Fans who enjoy sweeping romance and a lot of spice won’t find much in that persuasion, but I think it is clear that Joseph and Chowder function as an OTP and there are little vingettes of affections between them. I thought this book was something of a “long” read, but the chapters are short and the pacing kept me turning pages to find out how Joseph manages all the turns life throws at him.