GREAT READS FOR FEBRUARY, 2015
The Petticoat Men, by Barbara Ewing
In 1870, a scandalous trial was conducted in London’s Old Bailey: two young men of good family were charged with parading as women in public places. As if that weren’t salacious enough, later charges of sodomy were brought against Ernest Poulton and Frederick Park, who swore that they only wore women’s clothing in their roles as actors in various revues: ‘we are not guilty of these shocking and scurrilous charges, sirs!’
But who doesn’t love a scandal? The tabloids were just as industrious 145 years ago as they are today, and Victorian gossipmongers delighted in anything printed about The Men in Petticoats, not least because Park and Poulton weren’t the usual Hoi Polloi; they had connections, especially to the Nobility: how delicious to read (if you could) that the Upper Classes had their fair share of deviates, in spite of their impassioned denials.
Author Barbara Ewing has reconstructed as a novel The Crime of the Century, fleshing out Ernest, too beautiful to be a man, and Frederick, the second son of an eminent lawyer to be charged with buggery – and the more humble people they affected with their charades: the Stacey family, from whom both men rented a room casually – ‘We just need a place to store our gowns and change into them occasionally, dears!’, and the consequences of their deceit on Mattie, daughter of the landlady, and champion of them both in the courtroom – until she is forced to concede that her idols have feet of clay, especially when their lodging house is covered with graffiti and she is branded a crippled whore.
As the trial progresses, it becomes clear that powerful people will do much to keep the details of Ernest and Freddie’s indiscretions to a minimum – who cares who gets trampled upon in the process, as long as the Great and the Good are not exposed: small fry like the Stacey family are entirely expendable - but Ms Ewing has done a marvellous job of convincing the reader that justice eventually prevailed, despite the lamentable double standards and hypocrisies of the age. Her characters smile at us from the pages, damaged, ebullient, charming and villainous: this novel, the facts meticulously researched, reads like a thriller, as thrilling as the real case of The Men in Petticoats 145 years ago. Ms Ewing presents a compelling portrait of the times: God-fearing, strait-laced on the surface – and embracing a netherworld of corruption beneath. Highly recommended.
The Mountaintop School for Dogs, by Ellen Cooney
Blurbs by famous authors on book covers can sometimes achieve the opposite of what they intend, which is to convince the reader to read said book. When I read ‘this book will grab your heart and not let go’ my toes curled: oh dear, yet another heartwarming tale guaranteed to be forgotten five minutes after it’s finished.
Well, I decided anyway to give Ellen Cooney’s heartwarmer a try; I haven’t read anything else of hers and I thought (meanly) that I didn’t have to finish it if it was too saccharine.
So! I humbly stand corrected: Ms Cooney’s story is indeed heartwarming, but in the best possible way, for her characters are all too real, too credible and broken to not remind us of ourselves or of people we know. This little book is a gem.
Evie (we never know her last name) applies online to become an apprentice dog trainer at a dog rescue sanctuary in a remote mountain town (name or State never mentioned). She is searching for a career, a long term vocation, something that will fulfil her need to use her high intelligence, to make a difference to – anything, or anybody. Even though she has never had a pet and knows nothing of dogs, Evie feels she has to remove herself from her present environment, and what better way to start afresh than somewhere no-one would think to look; a place where the occupants would require her help, not the other way round, as it is at present.
And the occupants do need help – lots of it, from the little Scottish terrier who was abandoned to starve in an apartment by her owners when they left rather than pay the outstanding rent; the Rotweiler who was pushed out of her owner’s car and ran after it for miles before giving up; the wee terrier who was also abandoned as soon as a baby came along to replace her. And so on. And so on. Evie’s initial task is to make friends with these dogs who no longer trust humans, to restore their faith in the goodness of humans – to help them to feel like Man’s Best Friend again. For Evie this is a tall order. She has never been best friends with anyone. But perhaps that fact eventually gives her a better insight into the ways a rejected and crushed personality feels: Evie knows all about rejection.
And the longer she stays at the Sanctuary, she realises that it’s not only the animals who need the affirmation of friendship and affection; everyone who is employed there has their own story to tell, their own reasons for being there. The Sanctuary is a haven for all those who are sore of heart and tired of spirit, but united by their common wish to make their world a better place for animals – and themselves.
Evie is asked at the beginning of her stay to explain her reasons for wanting to work at the Sanctuary, and because she has been rather less than honest in her application, she delays her answer as long as she can – then, finally she thinks to write this:
Came in as a stray,
Is not completely hopeless,
Please allow to stay.
Well done, Ms Rooney. This is a lovely story. Highly recommended.