In a recent article about women’s writing it was claimed that respect and a wide readership is more likely if the author adopts a male perspective. Kate Worsley’s book half fulfills this criterion by offering a male and a female perspective in alternating chapters, but it also subverts it. However, to explain just how Worsley manages this subversion would be to give away one of the secrets of the book.
In 1740, fifteen-year-old Luke is drinking in a Harwich tavern when he is press-ganged into His Majesty’s Navy. His induction into life on board the warship Essex is brutal and overwhelming, and Worsley captures his experiences vividly. The smell of the bilges and of the men, the constant noise and movement, the hard, unfamiliar routines, the roughness, the fights and the course language, the dangers and the brutal punishments – Luke becomes familiar with them all. But all the time he yearns for his lost love.
In a different, less dangerous but equally disorientating way, young Louise Fletcher (Lou) exchanges life on an Essex farm (where she was “trained up from the age of twelve in the dairy work, in cow milking, and the buttermaking, and cheesemaking, and getting up the wheys and syllabubs”), for life as a lady’s maid in the busy sea-port of Harwich. Rebecca, her mistress, is the spoiled and willful daughter of Captain Handley, who runs a profitable packet boat which plies between Harwich and the Low Countries. Louise’s introduction to the Handley household and to her new mistress is strange, and Worsley immerses Louise and the reader in this new town life with its constant bustle, its odours, its tall houses “rackety as a row of sties”, the ships and the sailors, the drunk and the maimed, and the unpredictable and ever changing sea.
One of the great strengths of this book is Worsley’s ability to inhabit the world of her characters and to capture their language and their emotions. There are secrets here, too, and the loss of loved ones and the loss and finding of identity are constant themes.
Louise is forewarned of the dangers of seafaring life. Her father and brother both went to sea and never returned, and Lou’s mother has charged her with the task of seeking news of them, especially of her brother. Lou finds and loses a loved one; and finds and loses her own identity. Rebecca suffers several devastating losses, as does her whole family; and Luke sees and experiences losses of many different kinds on land and at sea. When Lou and Luke are finally brought together the consequences are not entirely unexpected but nor are they the stuff of clichéd romances. The story does not end there, nor does it have an especially happy ending, although given the circumstances and the era that, perhaps, would not have been possible.
For a first novel, Kate Worsley’s She Rises is remarkably assured. The descriptions of shipboard life, the dangers, the sickness, the fears and terrors of it, are gripping, and the characters are likeable and (mostly) believable. Worsley evokes the atmosphere, the people and experiences of many different places and she tells an exciting story. The course language of the sailors, and their inability to see women as anything more than providers of gross sexual gratification, is realistic but may offend some readers; and the depiction of lesbian love and sex may offend others. Both, however, are but part and parcel of a lively and enjoyable story. She Rises certainly deserves to gain respect and a wide readership for this particular woman writer.