If you’re looking for a great narrative romp, the highs and lows of an eighteenth-century prostitute’s life are a good place to start. But when a copy of Wray Delaney’s An Almond for a Parrot appeared on my desk, I was as apprehensive as I was excited. After all, how do you top the original heroines of the Enlightenment demimonde? Can the idealised, period-piece prostitute figure still charm us in 2017? And, on a personal level, would I enjoy a new iteration of the stories I have spent the best part of my PhD studying in minute detail, or would it be a bit of busman’s holiday?
By the end of page one, all doubts had vanished from my mind. An Almond for a Parrot is a book to get unreservedly excited about. Sally Gardner – the award-winning children’s novelist behind the pseudonymous Delaney – brings new and exquisite life to the eighteenth-century whore’s tale, combining the sensuousness of Georgian erotica with complex female agency and gothic twists of magical realism. Think Fanny Hill meets Nights at the Circus by way of Tipping the Velvet, and you’re halfway prepared for Gardner’s captivating fantasy.
The story begins in 1756 in Newgate Prison where our heroine, Tully Truegood, is awaiting trial for murder. Certain that she will hang, she sets about writing her life story, describing her transformation from childhood drudge to glittering courtesan, and finally to possible killer. As a girl, she is the prisoner and servant of her drunken, debt-ridden father. Aged twelve, she is forced into a midnight marriage with an anonymous masked man – apparently to ease her father’s money troubles – and becomes the stepdaughter of a glamorous woman named Queenie Gibbs soon after. Faced with Tully’s naivety, Queenie begins her education, and leaves her sexual initiation to her two gorgeous daughters. After abandoning the family home when her father loses her in a game of cards, Tully progresses to the Fairy House, one of London’s most fêted brothels. Here she begins her sexual and emotional education in earnest, losing her virginity to the beautiful Avery Fitzjohn once she has been groomed into a valuable stunner. Tully is soon the toast of London, and the favourite of wealthy patrons who augment her wealth, wisdom, and notoriety until her girlhood marriage catches up with her. So far, you might think, so eighteenth-century.
Yet An Almond for a Parrot is more than your typical whore biography. As well as beauty and growing self-knowledge, Tully is possessed of magic powers. Her progression through the demimonde offers more than the growth of her economic and sexual capital: it sees her learn to use her paranormal gifts. Under the auspices of the curious Mr Crease, a one-legged sorcerer whose tattooed eyelids grant him second sight, Tully learns to levitate, commune with the dead, and control the material world with her thoughts. She punishes her enemies with her ghostly accomplices, harnesses animals (living and dead) to do her bidding, and can instantly bring a man to his knees with her “pearl hand”. These skills certainly prove useful. While soaring through fashionable society thanks to her beauty and wit, Tully is pursued across the country by unpleasant lovers and violent criminals, all the while trying to uncover her estranged husband’s identity. Only a little magic can save her from the dangers of life as a whore.
Gardner’s vision of eighteenth-century sex work is the perfect mix of romanticism and realism. For every silken gown, rococo pleasure garden, and champagne-fuelled masquerade, she offers a sobering glimpse of the indigence, cruelty and inequality on which eighteenth-century society was built. Tully is not a simple pleasure machine. She is an enlightened critic of the world she inhabits – a world that leads almost inevitably to her downfall. Yet this does not detract from the sumptuous escapism of Gardner’s prose. Her descriptions of recipes, costumes and decor are topped only by her intoxicating (and numerous) love scenes, which convey Tully’s sensual pleasure as beautifully as they reveal her growing awareness of her mind, body, and capacity for love.
An Almond for a Parrot is a fantastic whirlwind of erotic fantasy with an irresistible heroine. Sally Gardner nods coyly to her eighteenth-century forebears, while remoulding their heroines for a modern reader used to a little more feminine power and magic. If the sumptuous cover art doesn’t draw you in, Tully Truegood’s bewitching voice will have you hooked from the first line to the last, desperately hoping she is not “gallows-bound” after all.