It’s amazing what you can find, trawling through second-hand bookstores. I found a swashbuckling, historical yarn, starring a tomboyish lesbian, in a loving relationship, written in the 1980s – which doesn’t end in misery.
During the reigns of Elizabeth and James I, when women weren’t at their most emancipated, a dashing thief-tress stole her way through England: Moll Cutpurse. We follow her from her start as her parent’s problem child, to her managing a pick-pocket academy, to her bambooziling a shanghai-ing ship captain, and beyond. Throughout her life, Moll has one constant, her apothecary girlfriend Bridget.
The cover calls this a ‘Novel by Ellen Galford,’ but I don’t think ‘novel’ is the right term. A novel implies an overarching narrative. The blurb reads: ‘[Moll] pits her wits against Puritans and tricksters, travels with the gypsies, rescues a near-victim of anti-witchcraft hysteria, and cheats the wealthy out of their ill-gotten gains’. You’d think these were adventures she has on her way to a larger goal. But, no, in Moll Cutpurse these adventures are distinct episodes, building to no grand narrative. Some episodes are no more than incidents, like when Moll argues with Thomas Middleton and then battles a misogynistic swordsman. This is not a mark against the book. Even if the episodic structure leads to a looser overall product than I’d like, the episodes themselves entertain well enough.
The book’s breezy style prevents these episodes getting stale. We see Moll evolve from problem child to serving girl to cross-dressing actor in a mere sixteen pages. The prose refuses to bog down in details of environment or character.
Your liking of this novel will depend on your liking of Moll. Like Holmes or Jeeves, Moll stands above average humanity. We want to see how this singular individual swash-buckles her way through it. There are certainly less interesting characters than a butch lesbian in the Elizabethan Era, always up for a fight, and ready to defend her sex against a man’s chauvinist word.
If the novel has any arc, it is Moll’s growing past her internalised misogyny, and into a defender of women. We first meet Moll barging into Bridget’s apothecary’s. She demands a potion to ‘turn [her] into a man’. But this book is not a pioneering work of transgender adventure fiction. Her desire to become a man comes not from believing herself a man, but from believing what men say about women. Around her, she sees women denied opportunity, treated as their husband’s chattel. She wants more for herself than that, and becoming a man seems her only way out. With some words from Bridget, though, she realises female suffering does not originate in womanhood, but in societal oppression. Unfortunately (or fortunately, from the perspective of the characters), Moll realises this only fifty pages into the novel, completing her arc. From then on, Moll versus misogyny is just sort of a running theme, which gets centre-stage in the climax.
Moll Cutpurse is not a character study. ‘Her True History’ does not cover Moll’s growth as a person (beyond the first fifty pages). It does not even track a grand desire she has. She is a static character, like Holmes or Jeeves. And like Holmes and Jeeves, we get Moll’s tale toldthrough a third-party.
Moll’s Watson is Bridget, her lover. On paper the book is told through Bridget’s eyes, but I question how necessary her perspective is. I know the common wisdom: Sherlock Holmes stands so far above us mere mortals that we need an everyman’s POV from Watson to relate to. But in Moll Cutpurse, Moll does tell most of her story. We’ll be in Bridget’s head, only for Moll to turn up and say, ‘Well, here’s what I’ve been up to.’ From there, we get Moll’s first-person recollections, showing we don’t need Bridget’s narration. What’s more If we stuck to Moll’s POV, there might be added tension. Given Moll recounts her dangerous exploits to another person, we know she gets out alright.
I suppose, interspersing Moll’s narration into Bridget’s varies up the book. If we didn’t take a break from Moll, her swashbuckling would become a dull baseline. But even without Bridget, we have characters other than Moll give their tales, which would be spice enough for the book. These tales range from unintentional treason to escaping an abusive husband. Bridget’s life story is nowhere near as interesting. Yes, she is a lesbian small-business owner in the Elizabethan Era, but she has no beginning, middle and end. Spare an episode in the second quarter of the book, all sections told from Bridget’s perspective just feel like dull digressions.
But though I can’t stir much affection for Moll’s lover, I appreciate that in this novel from the 80s, the worst I can say about a lesbian lover is that she’s boring. There’s no ‘bury your gays’ here. The novel has a sense of innocence. Not love, nor sex, nor same-sex love, nor same-sex sex is shameful. The work glances at society’s bigotry, but only as caricatures for Moll to bat away with the back of her sword.
Moll Cutpurse is a loose novel, a series of entertaining episodes amounting to no grand product. It follows a main character who may not have depth or much growth, but she is entertaining to watch (even when she is watched through her less entertaining lover’s eyes). If you’re in the market for a historical romp, give Moll Cutpurse a try.
Quotes taken from Firebrand Books' 1985 printing.