The year 1800 is approaching in Bristol, and Ruth is growing up with her sister, Dora, in the brothel their mother runs. Beautiful Dora is a sure bet to join the mollies upstairs once she hits her teens (or at least double-digits), but plain Ruth—whom her mother describes as being made of the “ugliest parts of 20 daddies”—helps her mother with the chores. Then one day, two bored customers offer to pay to watch Ruth and Dora fight, and Ruth’s natural ease in the ring sets her on a different path.
But while boxing may appear to offer more agency and freedom than the pursuit of a wealthy benefactor, the reality is not so simple. Mr. Dryer, the same merchant who keeps Dora as his mistress, also holds the reins of Ruth’s career—and in his eyes, both women are assets to be used for his benefit and discarded when they no longer contribute to it.
Dryer takes the same attitude when it comes to his timid wife, Charlotte, the sister of his best friend, Henry, with whom he is engaged in a destructive game of one-upmanship. Frustrated by her narrowly circumscribed life, Charlotte asks Ruth to teach her to box. In these scenes Freeman, who is a poet and lectures in English at Bath Spa University, eloquently and viscerally describes Charlotte’s pleasure in learning to fight back, in discovering the power of her body.
Freeman has a light hand with her characters: Dryer manages to be a villain without ever becoming a caricature, and even the machiavellian Henry engages the reader’s sympathy at times. But gruff yet tenderhearted Ruth is the soul of the story, and her romance with the gallant Tom and unlikely friendship with Charlotte are among The Fair Fight's many pleasures.
The novel’s narration bounces mainly between Charlotte and Ruth, with occasional chapters from the point of view of Henry that remind the reader how little the men of the time understood or even considered the women around them. But in life, as in the ring, being underestimated can be an advantage, and Freeman’s wily and strong-willed women can’t afford to pull punches. This remarkable historical debut goes beyond blood spatter and missing teeth to take a broader look at the limitations of class and gender, encouraging readers to ponder who (if any) among its characters is given a fair fight.