My rating: 5 of 5 stars
In any period time, in any place of the world, there has always been a great human drama in three acts: Poverty, Struggle, and Reinvention. It has been a substratum of thespian play of human life in pursuit of will to meaning, freedom of will. It is a history of human society at the highest, it is a history of an individual at the best. It becomes history of the humankind woven into a great tapestry of time that transcends the subjectivity of time and discovery of universal truth – truth that is contemporaneous both with their times and with ours. Victoria Glendinning’s The Butcher’s Daughter speaks to the reader of our time this universality of human conditions through the narrative of eponymous Agnes Peppin in endless search of self-reliance, independence, and autonomy yo triumph over the vicissitudes of life with invincible resilience and unyielding quest for freedom of will.
Set in the mid 16th century Tudor England under the reign of Henry VIII, it is a historical fiction with a veneer of a contemporary fashionable memoir of Agnes Peppin of intellectual ambition and social aspiration in the face of her lowly social status as a daughter of a country butcher. In fact, this is a tale of a young woman’s incessant struggle to preserve a sense of purpose and a tenacious grasp on intellectual superiority, not of a manifesto pontificating about inequalities and injustice bestowed upon womanhood, which is elegantly conveyed in Agnes’s frequent reference to the story of Mary and Martha in the New Testament. Agnes thinks that Jesus was unjust and unkindly to Martha, her alter ego, who had to take up all domestic menial drudgery, letting her cook meals and wash dishes, while her sister Mary sit beside him and listen to him as long as she pleases. Agnes sees her pathetic self ignored despite her intelligence and intellectual ambition through the figure of Martha and berates Jesus for taking side with the noble, dainty Mary who – under the aegis of Jesus – gets away with menial labor often associated with women of lowly birth. Agnes then further identifies herself with venerable Zeta, a holy woman of the medieval Italy serving as the same family as a maidservant, calling her “good Martha.” Agnes’s defense of the domestic paragons belies her buried sense of bitterness expressed in a general resentment of aristocratic shirkers smothered under daily duties, the existential demands of life ascribed to the members of her social class.
As a matter of fact, Agnes evokes a proverbial image of 19th century American pioneer woman – a woman of coarseness and strength combined with acuteness and acquisitiveness with that restless, nervous energy making her beautiful embodiment of resilience and self-reliance. Elsewhere in the book, Agnes unravels her woebegone wishes to chase her Pyrrhic dreams: “Silk and velvet are lovely. So are emeralds and pearls. A butcher’s daughter may aspire to those things even though it is unlikely, the way things are, that they will come her way. But too much dross comes with all that gold.” And yet, she still steadfastly holds onto her aspiration to achieve vertical social mobility to be a Mary, for she believes that it is her true vocation of life to become a self-reliant single woman with a room of her own and money, just as Virginia Wolfe asserts for a woman’s social as well as economic independence. After all, Agnes is not just another vain half-educated, semi-literate Martha trying to emulate privileged Mary but a strong-headed, courageous, and intelligent woman who finds a solace in learned solitude outside the social and religious confinements as her sense of true identity becomes conspicuous in search of her place in the world.
A richly illuminating read, it is also an informative historical account of the ways of life in Tudor England, such as customs, clothes, trades, and the general ethos of the time, without infelicity to provoke a sense of anachronism or incongruity. It is a surprisingly easy read in terms of the choice of everyday words and pellucid expressions without a display of pedantic knowledge on history and magisterial claim on academic superiority, given the author’s pedigree as Oxford-educated scholar and award-winning novelist. That is the gem of this highly fascinating read: Glendinning’s interpretations draw on her exceptional knowledge of these historical sources, but she wears her leaning lightly and writes with a general reader in mind, which is a true purpose of the Arts. Furthermore, Glendinning’s superb story-telling narrative skills makes her characters all the more realistic and alive, rendering the whole story contemporary with our time and relative to our concern. Glendinning takes the freedom of imagination in the context of regarding historical events and people to create her own fiction that reads like nonfiction. To encapsulate, this is an enjoyable and enlightening read that holds the reader’s attention without invasion of diversion or boredom.