Imagine if Fanny Hill was a fairytale? An Almond for a Parrot has sex, romance, prostitution for sure, but it has an even greater portion of ghosts, visions, mystery and magic. It has plenty to say – about hypocrisy, female sexuality and the importance of feeling secure. I cannot recommend this magical book enough!
If you know anything about 18th century England, you know that the Georgians have a certain reputation for bawdiness. Under their white wigs and fine manners, they had a taste, it is said, for sensational literature about the love and sex lives of others. Did they read it in order to shake their heads in sadness over the sinfulness of the world? Not always the 18th century was also a time in which sex became celebrated. In erotic novels of that time and so-called whores’ memoirs, such as Fanny Hill, women were often presented wanton and seeking a life of outside polite society. Really these accounts were written by men for men’s gratification. The heroine of An Almond for the Parrot, Tully, is different. Yes, she becomes a prostitute. Yes, she lives in the 18th century. Yes, she she is has a sex drive. But she wants to live her life on her own terms! And her story is written from a woman’s perspective. She says from the very beginning that she does not want to comply with her contemporary narratives. This character defies not only the 18th century narrative of female sexuality, but also our own in some ways. We, 21th century people, still are quick to brand a women who sleep around as a “slut”, but seem to give a pass on men who do the exact same thing.
“Perhaps I should portray myself as an innocent victim lead astray. But alas, sir, I would be lying, (…) Let me tell you my truth as seen through the two green eyes, not just the one eye that is always blinkered in favor of its owner.”
The novel opens with Tully in jail, awaiting trail for murder. Who she has murdered and why, we are not told. But our heroine has decided to write down an account of her life. Tully starts of her life with loosing her mother at birth and grows up in the kitchen’s of her father’s house, cared for by the cook. Mr. Truegood, a man who seems to be in a state of inebriation by default, neglects his daughter in every possible way; her emotional welfare, her education, he could not care less about her. He even marries her away to a masked stranger for money when she is twelve! Tully does not see the bridegroom after the wedding, nor is her strange married explained to her. She remains in her fathers house, isolated and longing for a day she might be in charge of her won destiny. But uneducated does not mean that she is not clever. She is! And it turns out she has the ability to see and communicate with spirits others cannot see. Like a dead dog and a mysterious boy in a grandfather clock.
When her father remarries Tully worries that her new stepmother and stepsisters will be the cruel step-relations of the fairytales. Luckily for her, she could not have been more wrong. Her elegant and wealthy new stepmother, Queenie, and sisters, Hope and Mercy, quickly become very fond of Tully. Queenie arrange tutors for her, Hope begins teaching her to dress in more than servant’s cloths and Mercy takes Tully’s virginity. All seems to be right with the world!
Then one day, it becomes clear that Hope will not be able to marry her suitor Mr. S. Queenie has only married Mr. Truegood to secure this match for Hope, so when it falls through, she ups and leaves. After the departure of Queenie and her sisters, life with Mr. Truegood becomes even more intolerable for Tully and she finally decides to leave his house in a spectacular fashion (her escape included her naked with a gambling party and a wine bottle!). It turns out that Queenie is running a high quality brothel called the ‘Fairy house’ and Tully becomes her apprentice courtesan (‘prostitute’ does not seem appropriate, considering the fortunes these women are earning by serving the aristocracy). But life in the Fairy house is not easy, and Tully’s growing magical abilities become invaluable to her as she faces spiteful attacks from other courtesans , beeatings from clients and the return of her drunken sadistic husband.
The author does not shy away from showing the difficulties in the lives of Tully and her colleagues. They risk violence and humiliation from their clients, who are some of the most powerful men in the country, and when they get older, or if they loose their clients, there is nothing but desperate poverty on the streets for them. But Tully, at least in the beginning, is pretty lucky with her lovers; She falls in love with the handsome Avery Fitzjohn and develops a great fondness for the older but kind Lord B. They treat her kindly, but it is a She is curious about sex from her early teens, but that does not mean that she wants to have sex with anyone! Tully wanting sex does not equate with her wanting to be a sexual object – a thing picked up and thrown away when it stops being interesting!
If you have read some of the classics of 17th and 18th English literature, you will have a field day spotting the overt and hidden references here. Tristram Shandy is alluded to as Tully describes (or avoids describing) her infancy:
“Several writers have deemed the early years of a young man to be of such momentous importance that they have even recounted the circumstances pertaining to the time before the sperm meets the egg. All I will say is that my father begat me and my father promptly forgot me.”
Moll Flanders is mentioned and, like in Fanny Hill, crude words are avoided in this book. Instead euphemisms are rife. The characters of this book talk about women’s purses and men’s ‘carrots’, ‘roots’ and ‘garden patches’ instead. It will give you a good laugh.
There is, as mentioned above, plenty of sex and love in this book, but it is not really a romance. If anything it is a bildungsroman in which a girl grows into her powers and attempts to build a home for herself. Over the course of the book, young Tully is looking for love, care and a home. She hopes to find it with Queenie, Hope and Marcy. She seeks it in Avary and she finds a version of it with Lord B. Her supernatural powers also start to grow as she starts to believe and her own abilities. It is rather sad that it is unusual to read a book in which the heroine, and not the hero, saves the day!