It’s 1912 and Frankie George is determined to make her mark in the cut-throat world of journalism. She longs to write something that isn’t for the ladies’ pages, but she isn’t impressed when she’s given the opportunity to interview a famous trapeze artist and suffragette, Ebony Diamond. For all her trouser-wearing and bicycle-riding, Frankie doesn’t align herself with the suffrage movement—but that doesn’t mean that she’s apathetic when Ebony Diamond disappears in the middle of her big act, especially when it appears that someone is trying to hunt Ebony down. Getting to the bottom of Ebony’s disappearance would make for a great story, and prove to Frankie’s boss that she’s able to write about more than fashion and homemaking. However, the deeper Frankie digs into Ebony’s background, the more convoluted the story becomes. Who wants Ebony dead? Is it the politicians she’s angered with her suffrage demonstrations? One of the mysterious characters who frequents Ebony’s corset shop? Or a fellow suffragette who disagrees with Ebony’s extreme militarism? Before long, Frankie has to admit that she’s investigating Ebony’s disappearance for more than just a story. Someone wants to murder Ebony Diamond, and ruin the suffragette cause once and for all. Can Frankie get to the bottom of the mystery before someone gets to her?
I must admit that the author of The Hourglass Factory is technically a friend of a friend. I feel honour-bound to give my honest opinion of every book I review. This one? I adored.
Before I go any further, I must admit that the author of The Hourglass Factory is technically a friend of a friend. On a recent visit with my old high school librarian, she mentioned that my former History teacher had a friend who had written a novel about suffragettes, circus performers and murder. Naturally, I couldn’t pass up such a story. History? Mystery? Feminism? Count me in! I even told her that I’d write a review once I finished the book. I feel honour-bound to give my honest opinion of every book I review. This one? I adored.
The Hourglass Factory is a little outside my usual comfort zone. My historical novels tend to contain more romance and less mystery, but that doesn’t mean that I don’t enjoy non-romantic historicals. Lucy Ribchester thrusts the reader straight into the heart of 1912 London, from the cramped boarding house where Frankie lodges, to the murky corners of Soho where Ebony and her friends perform in clubs. Lucy details the tall, skinny buildings of Fleet Street where the newspaper offices are held, and the Police Special Branch that dealt specifically with suffragette matters. This is one of those books that sucks you in, and when you’re forced to take a break from reading, you’re rather confused to find that you’re sitting on a blanket in your garden in Edinburgh, not attempting to escape paying a fare on the London Underground or snooping around the back of a corset shop.
This is one of those books that sucks you in, and when you’re forced to take a break from reading, you’re rather confused to find that you’re sitting on a blanket in your garden in Edinburgh, not attempting to escape paying a fare on the London Underground or snooping around the back of a corset shop.
I may have studied a little about the suffragettes at university, but a large part of this study was devoted to the Duchess of Atholl—a woman about as different from Ebony Diamond as you could possibly imagine. Women like Atholl are often remembered for their rhetoric, but what of the illiterate, working class women who also fought for equality? Ebony might not have been able to read or write, but she used the skills she did have to attempt to make her mark on the movement—even when it ended with her imprisonment. The Hourglass Factory doesn’t detail the persuasive speeches and peaceful marches made for the cause of women’s suffrage. Instead, readers are reminded of the more unpleasant aspects of the fight for women’s votes, including mass arrests and police mistreatment following window smashes, and a rather grisly description of a prisoner being force-fed while in prison. I’m not going to lie—while I have read about hunger strikes and force-feedings, I hadn’t ever really thought about what they entailed. This book isn’t unnecessarily gruesome, but it is raw and honest.
Frankie is a fascinating character. It would have been easy to paint this novel’s protagonist as your typical feminist who was eager to interview Ebony, and devastated when she disappeared, but it was a lot more interesting to see the growth of the suffrage movement through the eyes of an outsider. That doesn’t mean that Frankie’s all that different from the women she meets in her attempt to unravel the mystery of Ebony’s disappearance. Rebelling against her mother’s wishes by moving to London and writing for a newspaper, Frankie’s written anything and everything in her attempt to get picked up by a major newspaper, from grisly suicide stories to columns on the latest fashions. She can barely afford her boarding house accommodations while also making payments on her typewriter, which is essential to her job. She wears trousers, much to the disapproval of many of her female acquaintances, and it’s debatable whether she does this for the comfort factor, or simply to cause shock everywhere she goes. Whether you like her or not, Frankie is a fantastically interesting and flawed character. Her habit of speaking before she thinks may make her frustrating at times, but she’s definitely real.
Whether you like her or not, Frankie is a fantastically interesting and flawed character. Her habit of speaking before she thinks may make her frustrating at times, but she’s definitely real.
And isn’t that the real beauty of this book, that it deals with real women? From Frankie, the tomboy journalist, to Millicent, the surprisingly well-spoken and possibly aristocratic exotic dancer, to Ebony, the illiterate circus performer who wants the right to vote, each of the women in this story is flawed but honest. The Hourglass Factory is a fantastic portrait of what life was like for women in 1912. The constant fight for respect—be it from the police, politicians, parents or simply one’s boss—is evident within the pages of this book. In the author’s note at the end of the novel, I was struck again by just how long women have had the right to vote in Britain. As I write this review, it’s not even been a hundred years. 1912 was only the beginning of a long fight, and even if she is fictional, I like the idea that unsuspecting women like Frankie had their part to play in the movement.
Whether you have a personal interest in the suffrage movement or not, The Hourglass Factory will appeal to fans of rich historical fiction, unconventional characters and intriguing mysteries. I suspect that this debut novel will be making my list of top reads for 2015.
Disclaimer: This is a mainstream novel and contains occasional instances of profanity and sexual innuendo.