If the sign of a good book is that, while partway through it, you buy your own copy and take the library copy back, wondering whether to slide a post-it note inside urging the next borrower to do the same; and that you are mentally raking through the names of friends and family who would be good candidates to be given this book as a birthday present, then Mary Ann Sate, Imbecile, is such a book.
It’s a gobbler, a read on far too late in the night book. It’s a historical novel set in the early 19th century in the valleys around Stroud in Gloucestershire, among farmers and weavers and millworkers and improvers. It’s set in three houses: Mount Vernon, where the elderly Mary Ann Sate writes her master’s story and her own story, continually wondering which one is the more true and which one needs to be told. She remembers her childhood at the Heavens, a farmhouse on the opposite hill where she was brought as an six year old orphan from the Workhouse, where she grows up with Sybilla and Ambrose and Baby Fern in the house of dreamy, fervent, unhappy Mr Abel Woebegone and Mrs Freda Woebegone the unhappy Wesleyan tyrant. In that house Mary Ann learns to do the housework, mind the baby, feed the pigs, go to school, get vaccinated by Mr Harland Cottrell, and, famously, face down the escaped white bull in the lane.
She is feted for this, and for saving herself and Sybilla, but when she explains that it was not her but the Angels who gave her bravery, Mrs Freda is livid at her blasphemy and she is locked in the barn to repent. She is there for three days without food or water, but when she finally escapes, she finds that she has been spared a far worse fate.
The third house is Stocton Hill, where Mr Harland Cottrell gives her a place as a kitchen maid. There Mary Ann grows up, watching the boys of the house grow up too, and trying to understand why Master Blyth stammers so, and the strange and terrible story of Master Ned’s birth. As she grows to womanhood, her world expands, and she takes a job at the new cotton mill, and learns to love her new friends Lucetta and Emma. But the times are turbulent and angry, and Chartist politics infiltrate Mary Ann’s world with terrible results. It is a tremendous read, absorbing, thrilling, and a perfectly handled story. Secrets emerge like thunderbolts, and things we were taught from history are fleshed out with pointed questions.
The most striking aspect of the novel is that it’s written in brief lines and ripples of narrative that perfectly express emotions in their length. The Guardian review called it free verse, but I don’t agree. Look at the photo of the pages: this is how natural speech is, short, truncated lines, brief utterances that are deceptively rhythmic and packed with meaning. Beautiful imagery and powerful sounds immerse us in Gloucestershire dialect and the rural England of two hundred years ago, and Mary Ann’s voice leads us through the utterly marvellous story of her life. The brevity of the lines means that the book looks, from the outside, terrifyingly thick. Don’t be deceived! It’s probably the same length of time for reading a book a third of its thickness. But every word is a treasure to be savoured.
Why the ‘Imbecile’? This is the entry for the end of Mary Ann’s life in the records of the Stroud Workhouse. She was a real person, but nothing more is known about her than this epithet, and that she died on 9 October 1887. Alice Jolly has recreated a life from that name and the locality, to do an unknown woman justice. History usually tells men’s stories, and the stories of great events and changes to society and nations. Yet there are always windows that need cleaning, bread to be baked, laundry to be done, animals and children to be fed: the list is never-ending. Read Mary Ann Sate, Imbecile, and live in that world.