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Many moons ago, at my special measures secondary school, my love for history was most definitely not ignited. We learnt by rote modern German history in the main, with a thimbleful of revolutionary Russian just to mix things up. Fascinating as modern European history undeniably is, my historical knowledge of the UK was … lacking. Not any more. Not thanks to novels. So I was at first happy to be reading and reviewing this book. Having been a fan of historical fiction for many a year now, I was drawn to its bulk. Nothing like a big, fat story to get lost in. Give me any era, from commercial to literary, but I love especially the Tudor period, my biggest loves being Philippa Gregory and Hilary Mantel, different ends of the literary spectrum. So hurrah to receive a copy of the beautifully packaged Mary Ann Sate, Imbecile.
But I hadn’t quite computed the fact that the 600-odd pages were written in vernacular prose poetry. I love poetry, but not 600-odd pages of one poem. And I thought: am I clever enough for this? Can my soggy old brain compute? The literary and literal heft of the book felt off-putting, the narrative told in the voice and language of a Victorian orphan in the Stroud Valleys of the 1830s, a plain slip of a girl with a hare lip. An apparent imbecile. Not Tudor, nor very linear. Was such a book for the likes of me?
But soon the rhythm and pace and language of the narrative opened up Mary Anne Sate’s tale, and there I was in rural Gloucestershire, as if being whispered the story from the protagonist. Tiny, hare-lipped orphan Mary Ann Sate – persecuted for her “devil’s mark” and dismissed as a halfwit – is taken in by Mr Harland Cottrell as a servant in the Stroud Valleys of the 1830s. Living in total obscurity, she dies without leaving a trace, it seems, beyond a single line in the local death register: “Mary Ann Sate, 9 October 1887, Imbecile”. But Mary Ann was cleverer and more observant than those around her credited.
With the inevitable march of industrialist England playing out in the background, the burgeoning trade unionism, the Chartists, the history is very much a minor but important character in the novel. Mary Ann narrates her childhood and adolescence, living within numerous households, experiencing the whims of her masters – sometimes kind, often cruel, her harelip and alleged imbecility often commented upon. But as we learn, Mary Ann is not an imbecile. She is a storyteller, and she is a scholar, a reader, a dreamer, a visionary, though not any of these things openly – someone from her sex and station wasn’t allowed to be any of those things, not in those times, maybe not in ours. She’s not a Christian but she sees angels, like Blake. She writes like Gerald Manley Hopkins, infusing observation of natural world with spirituality. Blake and Hopkins are a potent mix. This is history from the point of view of the forgotten, the unimportant, the millions of people who’ve walked the earth before us who never get the chance to get into history books. Fictional, yes, but upon finishing the book I raised a drink to the many women who worked, mothered, dreamt and died before us, all but forgotten.
Mary Ann Sate, Imbecile is published by Unbound.