If you were born in 1800, there was a 25 percent chance that you would die before your fifth birthday. Popular sports of the day were often bloody: bear- or badger-baiting, cockfighting and, of course, bare-knuckle boxing.
When I was researching British history (for a book idea that ended up being shelved), I came across actual newspaper extracts of the time, in which women challenged one another to fight:
I, Ann Field, of Stoke Newington, ass driver . . . having been affronted by Mrs Stokes, styled the European Championess, do fairly invite her to a trial of her best skill in Boxing, for 10 pounds…
I, Elizabeth Stokes, of the City of London . . . do assure her I shall not tail meeting her for the said sum, and doubt not that the blows I shall present her with will be more difficult to digest than any she ever gave her asses.
Reading those extracts, I had one of those magical moments that drive me to research history: I knew those women were real, breathing people. I felt them. I almost became them. At a time when ladies were expected to occupy themselves with nothing more than sewing, painting and music, Ann Field and Elizabeth Stokes had been standing in front of a howling crowd, fists raised. They had punched and been punched in return, they had seen their own blood stain the boards of the ring. They’d been as desperate and frightened and savagely elated as any of us would have been, in their place.
And what had happened to these women, to drive them to choose such a different, brutal way of life? These were fights with almost no rules; medical science was often ineffective. They were genuinely risking their lives. The prize of 10 pounds was a huge part of it, of course—it was more than many domestic servants would earn in a year. But there had to be more than that.
I was left to imagine how it must feel to choose between making your living by your fists or lying on your back.
The newspaper articles of the time suggest that many of these women came from a background of prostitution. So I began there; perhaps boxing felt like the only other option. Beyond that, however, it proved very difficult to find out much about their real, everyday lives. History is mostly recorded by, and about, people from the upper classes. There are facts and figures about mortality rates and a fair bit about the everyday diet of people living in poverty. But whereas there are a fair few surviving diaries of aristocratic women, recording their thoughts and feelings, most of the working class women who took their chances in the ring weren’t even literate. I was left to imagine how it must feel to choose between making your living by your fists or lying on your back. I like to think that if I were in that position I’d make the same choice that my character Ruth does, and step up into the ring.
Another protagonist of The Fair Fight, Charlotte, sprang from those aristocratic diaries. Many of the noblewomen keeping them felt trapped and miserable, imprisoned by the genteel boredom of their day. When I discovered that some ladies did accompany their husbands to watch boxing matches I thought, my god, what must it have been like to step out of your drawing room, bound by the shackles of convention, and watch another woman break them so completely?
In fact there was one “lady of quality,” Lady Barrymore, who was nicknamed “The Boxing Baroness.” She enjoyed watching boxing matches as much as her husband did, and would dress up as a lady boxer and pretend to spar. Reading about her, I could imagine the kind of freedom she must have felt while she was in costume. I wondered how much further she would have liked to go, if she could.
The Fair Fight is intended to be fun to read, and it’s a fiction. Even so, it’s based on real struggles. Every character in The Fair Fight is battling the limitations imposed on them by their class, gender, sexuality or family situation. It’s always been an unfair fight for women, working class people and people outside the heterosexual norm. Some of the characters fight in the ring, and others in drawing rooms and around the dinner table. And every little victory counts.
Poet Anna Freeman makes her fiction debut with The Fair Fight. A visceral take on the world of female prizefighters in 1800s Bristol, England, the novel has already been optioned for TV by the BBC. Freeman lectures in Creative Writing at Bath Spa University.