"For you, I will write of it all-part truth, part memory, part nightmare-my life, the one that started so long ago, in a place so far from here . . ."India, 1839: Linny Ingram, the respectable young wife of a British colonial officer, settles down to write her life story. In the claustrophobic, mannered world of British India, Linny seems the perfect society wife: pretty, gracious, subservient. But appearances can be deceptive. Linny Ingram was born Linny Gow, an orphan raised in the cold, gray slums of Liverpool. Sold into prostitution by her stepfather when she was only eleven, Linny is a born survivor and an accomplished chameleon and manipulator. Through a stroke of luck and considerable scheming, she manages to re-create herself as a proper Victorian young lady, middle-class and seemingly respectable. By befriending a merchant's daughter, Linny secures a place with her new companion on a ship bound for India, where they will join "the fishing fleet"-young women of good birth but no fortune who sail to India in search of a husband.India, with its exotic colors, sights, and smells, is a world away from the cold back alleys of Linny's childhood. But even there, she is haunted by her past, and by the constant threat of discovery. To secure her place in society, she marries Somers Ingram, a wealthy British officer with secrets of his own. Soon Linny discovers that respectability and marriage bring a new kind of imprisonment, as well as the same menace and violence that she thought she had escaped. But Linny is not about to surrender easily. In the lush tropics of India she finds not only the means for rebellion but also the love and freedom she never had in England.We had been at sea almost four months. Swallows swooped near the railings, indicating land nearby. Mrs. Cavendish likened these busy, twittering creatures to the dove with its olive branch. She was right, and within another day villages were spotted along the coast. The water became noisy with dozens of tiny rocking boatloads of Indians. Bumboat men, Mrs. Cavendish called them, shouting to be heard over the cries of the villagers as they boasted of their merchandise, hoping to sell coconuts, bananas, or tamarinds. I hung over the railing, watching as the natives threw ropes with baskets attached over the ship's side. Some of the crew called down to them in a strange tongue that I couldn't identify, putting coins into the baskets. The baskets were lowered, and then came up again, filled with whatever the sailors had requested. I longed to try the strange-looking fruit, but Mrs. Cavendish, with a slight shake of her head, indicated that it would be beneath us to purchase anything in this way.During the last few days, as we grew ever closer to our destination, excitement grew in me. At first I attributed it to the beauty of the water and sun, the flying fish sending little droplets of water onto the smooth sea, but then realized it was something else. I detected a difference in the atmosphere, and whether it was the air itself or the degree of heat I couldn't say. Perhaps the smells carried in the wind contributed to the unexplained breathlessness I experienced. My nose filled with the strange smells of an unfamiliar populace, the scents of unknown vegetation. I felt as heady as I had when twirled in my first quadrille. -from The Linnet Bird.
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May 16, 2005
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Excerpt from The Linnet Bird by Linda Holeman
I had been put to work for men by Da in the winter of my eleventh year. He was dissatisfied by the small wage I earned at the bookbindery and had recently been laid off his job at the rope makers for turning up tip one too many times and spoiling the hemp in spinning.
It was a wet November night when he arrived home with Mr. Jacobs. I suppose he met him in one of the public houses; where else would he meet anyone? I heard Da say the man's name over and over, Mr. Jacobs this and Mr. Jacobs that. One or both of them were stumbling, and the knocking into the few pieces of furniture, as well as the loudness of their voices, woke me from my sleep in the blankets I laid down behind the coal box each evening. It was warmer there, close to the fireplace, and I felt I had at least a tiny degree of privacy in the one rented room on the second floor of a sagging dwelling off Vauxhall Road, in a court on Back Phoebe Anne Street.
"She's here somewhere," I heard Da say, "like a wee mouse, she is, scurrying about," and then, before I had a chance to try to make sense of why he would be looking for me, I was dragged out of my blankets and into the middle of the low-ceilinged, candlelit room.
"I thought you said she were eleven." Mr. Jacob's voice was hoarse, the words clipped with impatience.
"I told you right, Mr. Jacobs. Past eleven, now. Had her birthday well before Michaelmas."
"She's awfully small. Not even much of a shape to her yet."
"But she has a quim, sir, that you'll find soon enough. It's just delicate she is, a delicate slip of a girl. And she's a right pretty lass, you can see that for yourself," Da said, pushing back my long hair with calloused hands and pulling me closer to the candle in the middle of the table. "Where have you last seen hair like this? Golden and rich as summer's sweetest pear. And like I told you, she's pure. You'll be the first, Mr. Jacobs, and a lucky man indeed."
I pulled away from him, my mouth opening and closing in shock and horror. "Da! Da, what is it you're saying? No, Da."
Mr. Jacob's thick bottom lip extended in a pout. "She's nothing special. And how do I know you haven't duped a hundred men before me, you and her?"
"You'll know you're the first, Mr. Jacobs. Of course you'll know. Tight as a dead man's fist, you'll find her."
I yanked my arm away from Da's grasp. "You can't make me," I said, backing toward the door. "You'll never-"
Mr. Jacobs stepped in front of me now. He had only a ring of graying hair and the top of his head shone greasily in the flickering light. There was a cut, crusted over with dried blood, on the bridge of his nose. "Quite the little actress, aren't you?" he asked. "You can stop all your bluster now. You'll not get a penny, you nor your father, if I find you're not what's been promised."