Saturday, February 1, 2014

She Rises by Kate Worsley

Kate Worsley's She Rises is a lesbian romp set in 18th-century England. Lou, a 15-year-old milkmaid, gets sent to town to be the maidservant to a rich girl of the same age. It won't take savvy readers long to figure out there are the right kind of sexy sparks flying between them. Lou's story alternates with that of her brother Luke, who went to sea when he was her age. Again, queer readers might pick up the subtle hints and guess at the direction they are taking... but since the narrative is carefully crafted to delay the full reveal, I won't say more about the plot.

Sarah Waters' books, Fingersmith and Tipping the Velvet in particular, came to mind as I read. Like Waters, Worsley addresses social issues and is very good at evoking the gritty details of the historical period. Casual brutality is everywhere. Luke is press-ganged into service aboard a navy ship, where men are flogged to the bone merely to serve as examples for the other men. Women's lives are narrowly proscribed. It's clear that punishment will be harsh for anyone caught stepping outside the norm.

I enjoyed reading about food and drink. At Lou's first supper in a fancy house, she sat down to eat "platefuls of spatched eel and potatoes with persil and small beer" with the other servants. When Luke is newly aboard ship, he's advised that burgoo (stew), and some hot purl "will steady that lubber's stomach of yours." (Purl is a wormwood ale; how convenient that I recently read The Drunken Botanist!) Want to know how to make a hot flip drink?

"Nick takes the poker and brings its red hot tip within an inch of singeing his whiskers. The fiery light glints off his eyes. He grins at them all.
'The cans, laddie, come on,' says Nick, with an eye to Charlie.
Luke takes up the black jack he has filled with beer and starts to pour.
'Not so much,' says Nick. 'You know now.'
Luke sets the first mug before him and Nick lowers the poker's glowing tip into it as though to douse it. But a bright white foam surges up and the beer splutters with a noise like hail on a window pane. Nick sighs with pleasure and breathes in the taffy fumes."

There is sweet romance, too. "Our eyes were level and I saw your mouth quiver. I took a step, and then another, and you came with me. And then we were dancing together, not one of the country dances that were the only dances I knew, nor the genteel one you were trying to teach me, but some combination of the two, another dance, all our own."

A wonderful, bracing novel with rewarding depth.

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