Week 5: the Fair Fight vs the Accidental Proposal

Once again I got it wrong in the case of a book’s setting. The Accidental Proposal is set in Brighton, not Bristol. It wouldn’t have fared well against Freeman anyway so I won’t say any more about it.

The Fair Fight is Anna Freeman’s debut novel after completing her BA in Creative Writing at Bath Spa University and then her MA in Creative Writing at Manchester Metropolitan University. She is now a creative writing lecturer at Bath Spa University (where Nathan Filer also lectures).

Bristol, 1799. In Frog Lane, right in the city centre, is a brothel called the Convent and that’s where plain and unremarkable Ruth is born and raised. Destined to follow the profession of those around her she instead catches the eye of Mr Dryer, local merchant and boxing enthusiast.

Dryer takes Ruth under his wing and she soon makes a life as a female boxer – a pugilist – dropping more than her fair share of blood in the sawdust at the infamous Hatchett inn, where in modern times Freeman worked for six years.

On the other side of the class divide is genteel, rich, pockmarked and angry Charlotte, Dryer’s wife. She has lost most of her family to small pox, all except for her bullying brother who hides from the world and spends most of his time staring at the bottom of a bottle.

Freeman provides not only a level of emotional depth to her characters that makes them believable but her research adds some details which while not well-known ring true because they are based in reality.

She was inspired to write The Fair Fight after reading one of her nieces Horrible Histories books. She says “I had no idea that it happened but female prize-fighters used to write challenges to each other in newspapers. I read about Elizabeth Stokes who, in one example, answered Ann Field’s taunt with: “I, Elizabeth Stokes, of the City of London… Do assure her … that the blows I shall present her with will be more difficult to digest than any she ever gave her asses.”

Most women fighters were either prostitutes or suffering in poverty and while they may have made names for themselves in the ring, they had little value outside it.

Freeman’s research also encompassed reading diaries of Georgian women. “There are all these extracts from the diaries of spinsters and loads of them are so bitter and angry.”

There is an examination of injustice and personal power in the Fair Fight and quite a comprehensive look at the Bristol of the times. From schooling at St Michael’s Hill to the poverty in the dirty centre by the docks and the rich houses and families at Queen Square, there is a great sense that this take could not have taken place anywhere else. There is even a festival by the Harbourside which seems the ancestor of our current Harbour Festival.

The Fair Fight is not only a great Bristol novel but also one of the best books of the year.

Published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson on August 28.

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