The Sweetest Thing by Fiona Shaw

Sixteen-year-old Harriet wants to leave her fishing village behind and start a new life in York. Mary, a girl from her village, wants to accompany her and so the girls leave, in the hope that they will have a better future in the city. There, Harriet and Mary are looking for jobs and when opportunities arise, the girls are happy to have found a way to earn money. Mary works as a laundress and she also gets paid for photographs, and Harriet works at a cocoa factory. There, Harriet falls in love with Thomas and her life seems perfect, but when certain events lead to a tragic end, Harriet’s world falls apart.

Intertwined with Harriet’s story is Samuel’s tale, a kind gentleman who helps Harriet with her job search. He is a Quaker and a collector of photographs showing working-class girls in their working clothes. Samuel cares deeply for working-class women and he wants to improve their situation. He takes a special interest in Harriet because he has fallen in love with her. However, he knows that he doesn’t have a chance, since she is already in love with someone else. Still, Samuel and Harriet become friends and when tragedy strikes, Samuel does everything in order to help Harriet.

The Sweetest Thing is a wonderful and engaging novel that gives the reader an account of late-Victorian life, drawing an intimate portrait of ordinary people while revealing their feelings, situations and hopes. The book concentrates on working-class women and their conditions and we learn a lot about their lives, especially through Harriet. For example we find out that young girls like Harriet who fell in love and wanted to get married had to hide their marriages in order to be able to continue working. Once a girl got married, she had to leave her position at the cocoa factory and become a house wife. However, many of these girls got married in secret and continued working as if nothing happened. That way, the girls could still earn money, although it must have been hard for them to pretend to be single.

In The Sweetest Thing, we also learn a lot about the cocoa factory and its shadowy policies and we learn how the owners put their employers in great danger in order to become successful and wealthy.

The novel also touches on topics such as religion, morality and ‘madness’ (Samuel’s sister Grace has been confined to an asylum because her mother couldn’t accept Grace’s friendship with another woman and her wish to never get married). Together, these subjects make The Sweetest Thing an enjoyable and captivating read. Moreover, each individual story will move you as the book concentrates on the protagonists and their tales, and I can assure you that Harriet and Samuel will linger in your mind for a long time.

I really liked this book because of its themes, the dated language and the individual stories that fascinated me. If you like historical fiction and if you are a fan of Sarah Waters and Tracy Chevalier, then I truly recommend this novel to you!

Note: I would like to thank Virago Press for sending me a copy of this book!

Andreea

 

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