Book Review: The Strange Adventures of H by Sarah Burton
"“If you want a slice of the cake you must pay for it with your name. And what is a name good for after all? It neither puts bread in your mouth nor clothes on your back” – the advice given to the protagonist of The Strange Adventures of H, who didn’t know her real name, and adopted several identities during her formative years, giving the reader a sense that the character could be any one of us.
A thoroughly researched book, this first person narrative moves at a fast pace as a fictional memoir, capturing an authentic sense of seventeenth-century London. It covers the period following Charles II return to the throne, including the Great Plague (bearing some uncanny similarities to today’s pandemic – “streets that had teemed with traffic were not merely deserted but had grass and weeds beginning to grow in them”); and also the Great Fire. The scenes are wonderfully depicted through the character’s dramatic experiences of a deceptive London (“it was both narrow and dark, carts passing each other with some difficulty, and over-reaching upper storeys of the houses almost touched across the street, so it had more the feeling of a tunnel than a bridge.”)
There are several themes at play here: it is both a coming-of-age and rags-to-riches story. But more than that, it is about a young woman navigating the changing role of women during the Restoration period, and – given the nature of H (and her strange adventures) – it explores the lives of several females within one character: the middle-class adolescent, the pregnant vagrant, the brash prostitute and the revered noblewoman. It also explores the theme of greed and how money affects people’s behaviours and their relationships with one another; how sisters with the same upbringing can make different choices between wealth and status versus friendship and loyalty.
There’s not much to criticise about The Strange Adventures of H, but I think the cleverly written prologue would benefit from a little less foreshadowing. There are also a couple of scenes where I would welcome more depth in H’s emotions (when she reaches rock-bottom), but this can be excused as the narrator not wishing to dwell too much on her painful past.
If you enjoy the works of Daniel Defoe, Samuel Richardson, Tobias Smollett or Henry Fielding, then you will gravitate towards this novel. But the style is neither old-school nor flowery and its contemporary feel – the language and the issues experienced by a diverse group of women – make this novel interesting, fun and relevant not only for readers of historical fiction but also fans of women’s fiction.
I’ll end with a quote that sums up the book and the twists and turns that befall the protagonist, her friends and foes: “Frenchie was wont to say, “L’homme propose; le Dieu dispose”, and when I asked her what it meant, while she struggled for a translation, Kat supplied her own: “We make plans, while God laughs.””