A Maid’s Ruin
Margate, 1786. Molly Goodchild dreams of a better life than rising early to milk her uncle’s cows. She is admired by the steadfast Charlie, talented gardener at the local workhouse, but her head is turned by her dashing cousin Nicholas, Sergeant Troy to Charlie’s Gabriel Oak, when he is sent home from his naval academy under a cloud. Late 18th-century Margate is beautifully evoked, from the elegant town-houses of Hawley Square, to the mysterious Shell Cave and the sanctuary of the workhouse garden. Molly encounters a young boy sketching the parish church, who turns out to be J. M. W. Turner.
There are all kinds of evocative details, from keeping water droplets from leaves lest the sun’s rays scorch them, to a little boy who misses an outing because he won’t put on his shoes. Betrayed by Nicholas, Molly flees to London, where though it seems easy for her to find people who would help her, just about everyone turns out to have less than selfless motives for doing so. In the city, as in Kent, there are vignettes of Georgian life: Thomas Keyse’s Bermondsey spa, a Covent Garden brothel, the humiliation of the Coram baby ballot, and the Chelsea Physic Garden. Against all odds (and thanks to a happy coincidence) Molly survives a series of reverses of fortune to find some contentment at last. By contrast with the gentle build-up of the opening chapters, however, the ending feels somewhat rushed and abrupt, leaving some unfinished business – but perhaps the author intends a sequel.