The Girl Who Had NothingMarch 31, 2013
I know I’ve said before that no one ever should have let Alice Williamson publish without Charlie, but I think I’ve changed my mind. I’m still not a fan of To M.L.G., and Shay says that The Adventure of Princess Sylvia isn’t so good either, but I just finished The Girl Who Had Nothing and I’m really glad it exists. (For what it’s worth, while this book is credited solely to Mrs. C.N.Williamson, it was published while he was alive.) This book, though. It’s like a cross between Miss Cayley’s Adventures and The Career of Katherine Bush, and it’s not as good as either of those, but that just means that it’s not as good as the beginning of Miss Cayley or everything but the end of Katherine Bush. It’s better than the less good parts of both of those.
The girl in question is Joan Carthew. Abandoned by her actress mother at a young age, Joan lives in a Brighton boarding house and works as a household drudge for the mean proprietress. Eventually she gets fed up and runs away, but instead of, I don’t know, looking for work or begging or something, Joan throws herself under the wheels of a wealthy woman’s carriage and uses her subsequent injury to insinuate her way into the woman’s house. Joan is, at this point, twelve. Yeah, she’s kind of a badass.
Lady Thorndyke takes Joan in, sends her to finishing school, and eventually adopts her, but then she dies, having neglected to update her will, and Joan is left penniless again. That’s okay though, because she still has the following:
• Her finishing school education
• A fashionable and expensive wardrobe
• Knowledge of shorthand and typewriting
With these, she embarks on her career as a con-woman. Other people call her an adventuress, and she apparently thinks of herself as a highwayman (“rather a gallant one”), but basically she makes her living off conning people. It’s great.
She starts by taking the job that George Gallon grudgingly offers her after Lady Thorndyke dies. She makes herself extremely valuable there for long enough to pick up some knowledge of a secret business deal, which she manages to parlay into two months living on a yacht on the Riviera and a few hundred pounds for spending money. That interlude doesn’t go on for as long as she’d like, but Joan escapes unscathed and is soon in Cornwall, going by the name “Mercy Milton” and getting her landlady and the girl she used to babysit well established in life. That episode leaves Joan with little money, but the landlady’s house in Bloomsbury now belongs to her, and going forward it becomes her home base, the place where she stays in between adventures.
Basically, everything is awesome. Joan manages to be both ruthless and human in a way that really surprised me. In most books of this type — books about adventuresses, I guess — the heroine is only allowed to be capable and independent up to a point. It’s as if heroines of this kind are being allowed to take on a male role, having agency and adventures, but have to return to a passive female role in order to have a happy ending. Either that or they’re horribly punished. Joan does, inevitably, fall in love and settle down of the end of the book, but for the bulk of it, she’s allowed to play both the male and female roles simultaneously, lying and stealing and acting as a protector to other women but also caring about people and examining her feelings and things.
I found the ending to be incredibly abrupt. It was the thing I liked the least about the book. But I wonder if it was sort of on purpose — if A.M. Williamson didn’t want to add in the romance at all but thought she had to. I think she had to, too, but not in a bad way, and I wish she’d drawn out that portion of the story more. It’s interesting, though, that Joan’s love interest seems to be there mostly to affirm that Joan is a good person. She’s not particularly happy about the way she’s lived, but he tells her over and over again that everything she’s done has been okay. I want to wait at least one more Alice without Charlie book before I declare this a trend, but I hope this theme of good women doing bad things without being made to seem like bad women continues. It’s pretty cool.