Friday, October 28, 2011
The Unborn Dreams of Clara Riley by Kathy Page
It was the green Virago spine that first caught my eye at Skoob Books in Bloomsbury. The cover art of a tired woman hanging the laundry she takes in for work isn't appealing but the writing most definitely is.
At sixteen, Clara Riley was raped by the son of her wealthy employers. Her swelling belly is noticed and she's swiftly turned out by the lady of the house with a box of cast-off baby clothes. Once belonging to her rapist no doubt. Without means to care for a child, Clara's baby is abandoned on the steps of another wealthy family. She can only hope his life will be better than hers.
This is Edwardian England but there are no tea parties or yards of muslin for dresses in Clara's life, only hunger, rough hands and hardly a moment of peace. An offer of marriage from a Bible-quoting man from the working class is accepted but her small sense of security comes with a price. While many women are happy to bear a child a year with barely enough to live on Clara is not. Not that she is a woman aspiring to rise above her poor station in life, she simply wants to lead her life free from men's bidding. And then she discovers she is pregnant.
Mrs Audley Jones supplies Clara with work and some of her cast-off clothing. She is also actively involved in the suffragette movement and helping women put an end to their unwanted pregnancies. All highly illegal. While she is massively forward in her thinking, Mrs Audley Jones is married to the Admiral who is very much a traditionalist. Thankfully for her, he is away for most of the year and ignorant to her causes.
Every woman taking part in marches, hunger strikes and protests as a way of achieving liberty could be silenced by two signatures on a document. An unsympathetic husband and a doctor willing to comply with his wishes was all that was required to lock up a woman in an asylum. The Admiral is back home, rumours are swirling, the police are making inquiries and the Doctor has been to the house to check on Mrs Audley Jones. She swiftly decides a course of action and makes plans. Meanwhile, Clara is on the road to madness due to her lack of choice or say.
The Unborn Dreams of Clara Riley is a riveting read and while the subject matter is frustrating the characters are not. Kathy Page does an impressive job of depicting the Edwardian era and some of its bleakest moments for women. This was an interesting and entertaining read so do pick it up if you come across it at a second-hand bookshop and don't let the grim cover put you off!