In Sarah Valentine, No Great Expectations: Part 1, Philip Valentine Coates begins his ambitious trilogy recounting the life of his great-great-grandmother in 19th-century London.
Born into poverty in 1819, Sarah Valentine faces a grim existence as her parents struggle to provide for her and six subsequent siblings. When Sarah reaches puberty, they bring her to a workhouse because they believe she would be better off there, due to their difficult circumstances and her own unruliness.
Sarah’s happiest times occur over a five-year period after she and a friend leave the workhouse to find menial jobs that might provide independence. Life remains tough, but 13-year-old Sarah enjoys “being mistress of my own life for once.” In 1837, she returns to the workhouse amid worsening economic times.
Coates vividly depicts the squalor found in the city’s slums, but his meticulous research unfortunately hinders the development of a dramatic arc. Although the book opens with a colorful prologue in which seven-year-old Sarah takes part in a pickpocketing scheme, Coates then tells her story chronologically from birth to age 18, replete with minutia that detracts from the more interesting episodes of her life (for example, he notes the workhouse entry and exit dates of secondary characters). By the time the book concludes, one feels as worn out as Sarah, due both to Coates’ ability to convey the dismal environment and the plodding pace.
In his Introduction, Coates writes that he sees himself as a “chronicler,” rather than an author devising a plot, yet he goes beyond mere factual recitation by imagining thoughts and dialogue that likely do not appear in the record. He succeeds in capturing a view of Sarah’s life, but more shaping of the narrative would make it a more compelling read.
Overall, Coates provides a thoroughly researched, though somewhat wearying, look at life in Dickensian London.
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