I loved this! I’ll admit that when I first saw that this was a novel about a female bonesetter in the 18th century, I had my doubts. Was this really something a woman would be able to do at that time or was this going to be another book, like one or two others I’ve read recently, based around a completely anachronistic idea that could never have happened in reality? Then I discovered that there really was a female bonesetter working in London in the 1700s: her name was Sally Mapp and her story has provided Frances Quinn with the inspiration for her latest novel.
That Bonesetter Woman begins with Endurance Proudfoot – known as Durie – arriving in London in 1757 with her sister, Lucinda. The unmarried Lucinda has found herself pregnant and, with Durie accompanying her, has been hastily packed off to stay with an aunt so that she can give birth away from prying eyes at home. Durie is not at all happy to be sent away; she had been on the verge of persuading her father, a bonesetter, to allow her to work with him as his assistant. Now it looks as though the position will go to her younger brother instead. This is devastating for Durie – with her large hands and feet, social awkwardness and tendency to always say and do the wrong thing, bonesetting is the one thing she’s discovered she’s good at.
Watching with a mixture of admiration and resentment as Lucinda overcomes her own personal crisis and launches a new career for herself on the London stage, Durie decides it’s time to take matters into her own hands. She’s determined to find a way to do the work she loves and nothing is going to stop her.
This is a fascinating novel, particularly as it’s loosely based on the lives of real people (like Durie, Sally Mapp was believed to have a sister, Lavinia Fenton, who became a famous London actress). I enjoyed reading about Durie’s work as a bonesetter – similar to a modern-day chiropractor or osteopath, I think – but what particularly interested me was seeing the obstacles she had to overcome to be allowed to carry out her work at all, the mistrust from patients on discovering that they were going to be treated by a woman, and the hostility she faces from the existing, exclusively male, medical community. Poor Durie experiences one setback after another, but her passion for bonesetting and helping those in pain really shines through.
Although Durie is not considered a great beauty like her sister, she does have love interests throughout the novel but her lack of self-confidence leads to her making mistakes and poor decisions. Nothing ever seems to go her way, but while things often look bleak for Durie I never stopped hoping that she would find happiness and success in the end.
As I come to the end of this review I realise there are a lot of things I haven’t mentioned – the vivid portrayal of 18th century London, the menagerie in the Tower of London, the subplot involving the Foundling Hospital – but there’s so much going on in this novel, I can’t include all of it! It’s a great book and I will have to find time to read Frances Quinn’s previous novel, The Smallest Man.
Thanks to Simon & Schuster UK for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.
This is book 36/50 read for the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge 2022.