Essex Girls Amberley, 2011
Essex Boys Amberley, 2013
Geography is not the only element linking the historical figures of Karen Bowman's recent two books. In Essex Girls and Essex Boys she selects a range of characters who are vibrant, defiant and brave, who have made their mark through the ages in all fields. Bowman explores strumpets and pioneers, scientists and authors, victims and villains, dividing them thematically in order to shape narratives that sweep across the centuries. She writes with a light touch but an eye for detail, making for a colourful, gossipy read that leaves the reader wanting to read on. In which case, there is a second book of treasures waiting to be discovered. These books are a complimentary pair; if you've enjoyed one, don't hesitate to get the other.
It is surprising just how many famous and infamous men and women have had associations with Essex over the centuries. I particularly enjoyed reading about the escapades of the eighteenth century highwaymen and gangs, including Dick Turpin. But Bowman is also a writer capable of empathy as well as entertainment, and looks beyond the felon to the reasons for his actions, in the decline of his livelihood as a butcher. The smuggling section was a particularly good choice too. Essex's generous coastline is riddled with little inlets and creeks, as well as extensive forest buffering up to London, making it the perfect location for the concealment of "brushwood" or contraband goods. Bowman says there is little romance in smuggling but her accounts of the lives of "Colchester Jack," "Daniel London" and others are compelling; she brings to life the very real sense that for many of them, it was the only available life. This section is well balanced by the tales of the Revenue men which follow, reminding us that this was a constant battle on both sides, an elaborate game of cat and mouse played out over the misty Essex Marshes. Perhaps it inspired a young reporter named Charles Dickens, who visited in 1835 to report on the Parliamentary elections. It was also good to see a section on the influential Essex family, the Lords Rich, even if it did confirm for me the received wisdom about Sir Richard being a complete villain.
It may be the because so much of mainstream history has been enacted and written by men, that Bowman's Essex boys felt more familiar than her selection of Essex girls. While many of the Queens and royal mistresses, such as Henry VIII's lovers Mary Boleyn and Bessie Blount, are well known, this book uncovers many of those women whose lives were not lived on the national stage and have therefore, escaped wider attention. The stories of convict women, sentenced to transportation amid terrible conditions for minor offenses were particularly poignant as were the experiences of Elizabeth Fry, working to reform the prison system. I also enjoyed the story of Mary Joscelyne, the midwife of Leigh-on-Sea, who reputedly delivered the love child of Nelson and Emma Hamilton. Mary was summoned in a closed carriage to attend a mystery woman who was undergoing a difficult labour, at twice her usual fee. Bowman has had access to the midwife's family records, where an old diary hints at the scandal which she tells enticingly. It was lovely to read the local points of connection. As an Essex girl myself, raised in Leigh-on-Sea, I enjoyed reading that Mary met her husband John in the 1770s, at the May Fair at St Clements, a fair which still runs, which I used to attend as a child. Likewise I can picture John as an old man, walking across Hadleigh fields in the noon day sun. It isn't essential to come from Essex in order to appreciate such details but locals will get an extra dimension from the links between their lives and the past.
Bowman's cast is huge, so she maintains a brisk anecdotal pace in both books, while providing enough detail to draw these mini-portraits. The use of sub headings within chapters invites the reader to dip in and out. Whichever page you open, there is something to draw you in and the embedding of quotations and images in the text make it feel accessible and varied. These are books of highly polished miniatures, each one rounded and interesting, build up to a fascinating collection of legend and historical fact. Reader should be under no illusion that these they are aimed purely at a local market: Bowman uses the vibrant history of the county as a springboard to discuss universal questions such as the rights and roles of women in the past. While Essex Boys focuses more on general character traits of passion and ambition, Essex Girls has something particularly valuable to contribute to the history of those who have been marginalised by the regimes of the past.