11th Apr 2012
The Bodice Ripper: The Harlot’s Press by Helen Pike
It’s 1820, and rebellion is bubbling throughout England. King George, once the charming, hedonistic Regent whose mistresses became the It Girls of the day, is now a bloated, out-of-touch roué whose estranged wife is threatening to return from the Continent and claim her place as Queen.
The scandal and others like it are captured by lurid cartoons in the radical pamphlets produced by Nell Wingfield’s stepfather Isaiah, and her early sexual education comes from operating the printing press and colouring in the lifted aristocratic skirts. But her brother Tom believes that the pamphlets don’t go far enough, and agitates for revolution.
When their mother dies and their stepfather is imprisoned, the realities of economic deprivation sink in. Nell flees to Covent Garden, where she falls into the hands of Mother Cooper, a brothel owner who keeps an eagle eye on the girls in her employ.
Following a near-miss with a sadistic aristocrat, Nell catches the eye of his enigmatic but kindly cousin and becomes a strange combination of sparring partner and kept woman.
When tragedy strikes, she realises that she has been playing a game whose deadly consequences extend further than the bawdy house and may have put her family in danger…
Helen Pike’s debut novel The Harlot’s Press combines royal scandal with the political uprisings that followed the Napoleonic Wars, and weaves Nell’s story in and out of historical events that brought England to the brink of revolution.
In this world, politics is a game where the stakes are high and nearly everyone but the King loses. Although the novel is teeming with period detail, it never feels like a history lesson, and Nell’s unique perspective as a politically savvy courtesan makes her an enjoyable protagonist.
Pike avoids the trap that many writers of historical fiction – Michael Faber, for one – fall into, of making their heroines hardened whores whose impenetrable cynicism grates.
Nell starts out as a God-fearing country girl, albeit one with a detailed knowledge of what goes on between men and women, but her initial innocence never feels forced.
Instead she retells the story of her fall with dry humour, defending the naïveté that led her to prostitution. Less convincing is her willingness to discuss her family’s political activity with the aristocratic gentlemen who visit the brothel – she is aware of how seditious their beliefs are, but blithely offers up detail enough to put her brother’s life in danger.
Equally, the implication that Nell’s only customer during that period was a man who preferred intellectual debate is a little hard to swallow and feels as though Pike is trying to keep her heroine as pure as she can.
Pike captures a seething and turbulent time for England with vivid detail – the battle of wills between licentious Caroline of Brunswick and pleasure-seeking King George becomes the backdrop for a Radical uprising and Nell is caught between the two worlds she inhabits.
Although the seedy environment Nell inhabits as a high-class prostitute could easily have turned the novel into a salacious romp – think Belle du Jour in a corset - Pike handles her historical material deftly, creating a lush political novel set during a time of unease and inequality that seem all too familiar.