The Fair Fight by Anna Freeman, book review: This streetwise story packs a real punch


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The Independent Culture

In 1768, the rake and diarist, William Hickey ventured into a low tavern in Little Russell Street, only to see the whole place in uproar, everyone standing on tables and chairs to get a better look at "two she-devils ... engaged in a scratching and boxing match, their faces entirely covered with blood, bosoms bare..."

Hickey was more used to low-class women working as tavern maids and prostitutes – but in the rougher sorts of pubs and in the back tents at fairs, female prize fighting was widespread in the 18th century. Women wore their shifts and publicly fought each other, boys and men for money, inspiring lucrative gambling rings. Most of them were born into families of brothel or tavern owners and the money a girl could earn with her fists was well above what she could as a prostitute.

It is this world of female pugilists that poet Anna Freeman sets her vibrant, heartfelt and beautifully plotted debut. Set in 18th-century Bristol, The Fair Fight brings that teeming port city to fascinating, detailed life – the brothels, pubs, fine houses and ships full of sugar from the slave colonies. Freeman conjures a wonderful, gutsy heroine: Ruth, born into a brothel and spotted as a fighter at the age of 10. She's no beauty, unlike her seductive elder sister, Dora, but no matter – she can lay out a man in a minute, starting with the butcher's boy at the local drinking den, the Hatchet.

Initially inspired by reading about female boxers in Horrible Histories, Freeman takes us on a riveting journey through Ruth's adventures at the hands of Mr Dryer, a gentleman patron who bets first on her and then on her equally tough young husband, Tom Webber. Told from the point of view of Ruth, Charlotte, Mr Dryer's fragile, discontented wife, and George Bowden, best friend of Charlotte's brother, the story twists and turns as the characters are bound together, all hunting for profit and survival.

"You tell your husband to take all he can from the gentry," says Ruth's mother to her, as she is dying in the top room of the brothel. "They'll take all they can from you." For this is a brutal world, no safety precautions and no medical care for those who fall, unless the rich sponsors see fit to pay for it.

Freeman has a brilliant ear for the demotic language of Ruth's world, conjuring a world of "beefy culls", misses, fibs (punches) and opening the door to the brothel itself, hung with sour-smelling silks. An 18th-century rollercoaster of double-dealing and drama, this is gripping stuff, a wild ride through places William Hickey and his ilk never dared go.