Crowds and Mud, Maidens and Monsters: Anna Freeman's THE FAIR FIGHT

Article by liz

by Liz Wright

Many months ago, Keaton left an advance copy of Anna Freeman’s THE FAIR FIGHT on my shelf with the sticky note: “Jane Austen FIGHT CLUB.” It’s like he knows me, or something. But if we got into a book battle, neither Jane Austen’s upper-class dramedies nor Palahniuk’s dude-centric ego-stroking would have a clue what to do with THE FAIR FIGHT. This gorgeous, eloquent stunner of a debut novel is a smiling woman delivering a roundhouse punch to the face, followed sharply by a knee to the groin. The first parlors and sitting rooms we encounter are in a low-rent brothel in Bristol’s grungiest neighborhood; the blood- and teeth-spattered boxing scenes are high-stakes chances for our girls to escape their unwanted lives; and though half the expansive cast of characters are gentry and merchants, this is Georgian-era England without any of its glitz and polish. Someone loses an eye. Just saying.

Ruth’s mother runs the convent (read: comparatively reputable brothel) in the rough end of Bristol; plain-faced and ill-mannered, Ruth is the maid and bully-girl her mother uses to impose order on conniving misses and ill-mannered cullies who want more than their money will buy. When she scuffles with her sister Dora, who has their mother’s favor as one of the newest, highest-earning misses, the watching men take them out into the yard and bet on their fight. Dora’s regular, Mr. Dryer, takes ownership of Ruth as his personal boxing novelty, and her training begins in earnest. Her servitude to Dryer sets off a spiral of backhanded blows and life-or-death fights, leading from Bristol to London and half the country in between.

But Ruth’s story is barely half of this face-smashing novel. (Seriously, don’t do what I did and hold this 480-page book over your face when you read it in bed. You will inevitably drop it at a tense moment and get an unwanted recreation of one of Ruth’s punches.) She shares narration duties with two others: firstly, charming schemer George, through whose eyes we meet our third point-of-view character, Charlotte. George is a childhood friend of Charlotte’s brother, and like most well-to-do and badly-behaved young men of the time, sees the women around him as creatures of a different world. Charlotte is a quiet, pox-scarred, highborn sister and wife, dulled into silent apathy by her lordly brother’s hatefulness and her own lack of prospects in life. In George’s eyes, Charlotte is a shy, shrinking, pitiable thing, and to my own shame, I thought that was all there was too see. Then we shift to Charlotte’s chapters, and—well. No spoilers, but Charlotte’s the smarter one of those two by far. She’s as sharp as Ruth in very different ways, and while Ruth’s journey is the more drastic externally, Charlotte undergoes such a radical internal change that when I finished the book, I went right back to the beginning. I had to gleefully reread the parts from George’s point of view that had so badly underestimated her.

Freeman’s deft use of multiple points of view is only one of the style choices that make THE FAIR FIGHT so vivid and visceral, but it’s arguably the most effective. The different perspectives shed light on events happening in different places, true, but so often in books with multiple narrators, that’s all it’s used for. In THE FAIR FIGHT, different characters actually get to experience the same event in different ways, and Freeman takes her time in letting their stories connect and diverge. These differing perspectives of the same event also serve to highlight two themes that flow as a constant undercurrent in THE FAIR FIGHT: class and gender conflicts.

Noble Charlotte, middle-class George, and lowest-class Ruth have radically different views of the same acts. What Charlotte sees as charity is the worst kind of condescension to Ruth, who has had nothing but pride to hold onto for most of her life. George’s willful blindness to Charlotte’s own agency makes him a tragic martyr in his own head and a handsome fop in hers. The merchants and nobles who bet on Ruth’s fights see her as a toy, not a person. The historical detail in this book is so rich—like the lumpy feel of Charlotte’s smallpox scars under her skin, or Ruth’s swaggering dialect—that this book feels like Freeman unearthed it from a time capsule, but the classism and sexism still ring uncomfortably true in modern times. Ruth, out of her social sphere and astronomically beyond Georgian gender roles, challenges every norm of the time, and pays the price for it in the other characters’ judgments.

Even Charlotte has to revise her first opinions of Ruth as the women become friends—and that, dear readers, is the moment everything in THE FAIR FIGHT leads up to. When Charlotte and Ruth meet, they change each other. Their matched dreams and determination for new lives find a common thread across class lines, with boxing the common outlet of their passion and desperation. Charlotte throwing her first punch is the most satisfying book moment I’ve read since Molly Weasley trashed Bellatrix Lestrange (and that was in 2007). This friendship is the friendship model I’m dying to see more of in fiction: mutually affirming female friendships, where both women grow and help each other and become stronger because of it. Neither Ruth nor Charlotte are beautiful, but they’re well-rounded, powerful, and, by the end of the book, sure of themselves. The FAIR FIGHT takes the idea that beauty, marriage, and class are the sole means of a woman’s self-determination, and beats that idea to hell. It does much more, of course, but to tell you anything else would spoil this glorious book, and I can’t do that. As Ruth would tell you, come up to scratch and get your fives on this book. You’ll be ready to fight by the end of it.

The Fair Fight Cover Image
$27.95
ISBN: 9781594633294
Availability: Special Order - Subject to Availability
Published: Riverhead Books - April 14th, 2015

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