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Mary Ann Sate, Imbecile by Alice Jolly review – a lyrical tour de force

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This rolling free-verse epic charts the life of a 19th-century servant in rural Gloucestershire during a period of political upheaval

Shortlisted for the Rathbones Folio prize, Alice Jolly’s remarkable third novel is the tale of a serving woman in 19th-century rural Gloucestershire, written in rolling free verse, and set during a time of tumultuous political upheaval. Mary’s story is a “found document” in the best literary tradition, discovered behind a panel in the last house in which she served. Indeed, by ventriloquising an overlooked, working-class female voice, the novel recalls Richardson’s Pamela, with its audacious “writing to the moment” and utterly convincing idiolect.

We first meet Mary as an old woman, caring for her ailing master, Blyth Cottrell, at Mount Vernon, where she’s given the task of writing down his life story. In an act of rebellion, Mary decides to tell her own story instead, and we return to her abusive orphaned childhood, and then to her time in service at Stocton Hill Farm. There she’s taken on by Blyth’s father, the benign Harland, who later teaches her to read and write, and encounters Blyth’s brother, the firebrand Ned. It’s Ned’s involvement in the swelling Chartist movement that sets off a chain of events leading to the book’s gripping climactic tragedy, giving Mary a heavy burden of secret knowledge alluded to from the start. Jolly brings the upheaval of the times – the Swing riots of the 1830s, with their rick burning and machine breaking – vividly to life, placing her characters at the centre of historical events that quickly overwhelm them.

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