I have been waiting for Anna Freeman’s The Fair Fight to arrive at my library since I read the first review. The book includes so many of the things I like: set in eighteenth century England, unconventional women, multiple narrators, and women boxing! I finally got my hands on a copy this week and immediately set to reading it. During the day, I would go about my business—teaching people how to use the library’s databases, updating tutorials, buying books—and by evening (and night), I would be following Ruth Webber and Charlotte Dryer as they punched their way through life.
Born in a brothel, Ruth Webber doesn’t have much going for her. She believes she doesn’t even have looks enough to work as a prostitute. She settles for life as a servant in her mother’s brothel while her pretty sister gets all the attention. Nothing would have changed if she hadn’t gotten so mad one night she attacked that pretty sister in front of a man who wants to train up the next English boxing champion. From the age of 13, Ruth fights all comers (female and male) through lost teeth, broken bones, and too many bruises to bother counting. Her boxing even brings her Tom, a young man who loves her in spite of Ruth’s bewilderment at him. Ruth’s career ends with the titular fair fight.
I thought The Fair Fight would be mostly about Ruth. It is about a trio of people connected through Ruth’s “manager,” Mr. Dryer. George Bowden is an old school friend of Dryer’s. Through his perspective, we learn about the gentlemen gamblers who make their living off of betting on (or against) the boxers. George is also the reason the “fair fight” was actually fair. Being the youngest son of a moderately well off family and disinclined to make an honest living, George doesn’t have much of a future ahead of him. The only thing he has in his favor is is relationship with Perry Sinclair, who cannot live without him. George becomes his agent after Perry loses most of his family to smallpox. With this income, he wins and loses fortune after fortune gambling.
George is our introduction to the third narrator, Charlotte Dryer (née Sinclair). Charlotte is the only member of Perry’s immediate family to survive the pox, though she is terribly scarred by the disease. Through George’s eyes, the Charlotte we first see is very quiet and retired, innocent. When Charlotte takes her turn as narrator, we learn just how unusual she is. She and Perry hate each other. When George develops an attachment to Charlotte, Perry gambles her away (not figuratively) to Mr. Dryer. Charlotte is happy enough to escape her brother, but she is terribly bored. Mr. Dryer clearly has no intention of being an involved husband. He prefers training boxers and his mistress’s company to Charlotte’s. Charlotte is filled with an impotent anger for much of the book.
For the first half of The Fair Fight, the three narrators are only tangentially involved in each other’s lives. After the fight, Ruth is abandoned by Mr. Dryer, who starts training Tom to be his next champion. Ruth and Tom eventually move into the Dryer’s gatehouse. Charlotte’s first thought when she sees Ruth for the first time, during that fair fight, is that Ruth “is barely a woman at all” (175*). For Charlotte, there is only one way to be a woman. Her life has been so sheltered that the sight of a woman beating a man and being beaten in turn is shocking and revelatory. Charlotte and Ruth eventually meet and become something like friends, though Ruth is too independent to fully take Charlotte into her confidence. Charlotte is drawn to Ruth’s confidence and unwillingness to be humiliated or taken advantage of by anyone. Charlotte wants the same confidence. Before long, she talks Ruth into giving her boxing lessons. The lessons transform the formerly reclusive young lady.
While the women grow stronger, George is clearly on the falling side of Fortune’s wheel. He is what we would call today a fuck up. Everything he touches turns to dross. It’s entertaining, in a grim way, to watch him flail and struggle while the female protagonists learn to hold their own in a society that has such strict roles for them.
The Fair Fight was not what I expected. It is a more meditative book than the British cover or many of the reviews might lead one to believe. The characters are not shown to be very self-reflective, but they grow over the course of the book to show us how women could break through the restrictions placed around them with violence. The “lady boxers” are their own class, outside of society. We also see Ruth and Charlotte learning from each other. Each takes from the other the things they want or need to become independent. A reader might come to The Fair Fight for the boxing, but they’ll be given gritty portraits of female liberation.
* Quote is from the 2015 hardcover edition by Riverhead Books.