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New from MANIFOLD PRESS:
Once again we have the privilege of republishing a beloved story from former times.
Mary Frith, or Moll Cutpurse, lived between 1584 and 1659 in the City of London. We know little about her personal life – except that she claimed to be uninterested in sex – but this was not a period that discussed sex or love between women so it is impossible to tell.
MOLL CUTPURSE by Ellen Galford is a novel that takes full advantage of what we know about women’s lives in seventeenth century England to explore all the very real possibilities they had and breaks with the idea that because women do not appear in the history books, they had no role in the making of the world.
Previously published in 1984 by Stramullion Publishing, Scotland, and in 1985 by Firebrand Books, USA, this is the first electronic edition of MOLL CUTPURSE, and will be available to buy from March 1st.
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If my father had had a son I would never have learned to read and write. He was a herbalist by trade, a dabbler in alchemy and magic. Nothing on the grand scale of Dr Dee or Simon Forman, but well thought of in the parish of St Bride’s. He had more wild ideas than good sense, more mess to clear up than money coming in, so he needed someone who would help in his work and ask no pay. Even apprentices, though unwaged, require a certain amount of expenditure, although you wouldn’t think it if you saw the emaciated children who toil in my fat neighbour’s workshop. Sons would have been the ideal solution, my father thought, and he kept hoping that my mother would give him one. She thought so too, and died trying. So my father was left with me as his only hope, and consoled himself with my speed at learning to read and cipher. He was a cheerful, comfortable man, forgetful of his own surroundings, interested mainly in his studies. So I grew up knowing less about the housewifely arts than I did about the black ones.
We made our living, such as it was, on the spells and potions needed by the neighbourhood. Over the years I had learned enough about herbs and simples to take care of most of our trade myself, leaving my father free to get on with his great experiments, or lose himself in the works of Agrippa and Paracelsus. The good-wives of the district, who brought us eggs or pies in exchange for backache powders and soothing syrups, worried about me. “If your dear mother was still alive, you’d be a wife by now. This is no life for a fine girl like you.”
“No dowry,” I’d reply with downcast eyes. That shut them up; they went away clucking sympathetically. But the truth was, I’d learned all I wanted about married life from the women who came to our shop:
“Can you give me something to make my husband lust after me?”
“Can you give me something to make my husband leave me alone?”
“Can you give me something to ease a long labour?”
“Can you give me something to make my baby sleep at night?”
“Can you give me something to keep my strength up?”
These requests, and others like them, provided a large part of our trade, and we dosed the neighbourhood through its seasons of chills and fevers. But we had other, stranger custom: hooded figures, tapping on the shutters late at night, murmuring of fast-acting poisons, or, sometimes, whispering of powders that would be slow but deadly, allowing the victim to repent in agony, revealing all secrets, while white-hot snakes slid through his vitals. These last demands were never met, no matter what sums we were offered – but I do confess that once or twice, when we were truly on the verge of starvation, we’d cross ourselves and hand over a paper filled with something quick, efficient and relatively painless. Still, it may be a word in our favour that whatever food we bought with such earnings always stuck in our throats and tasted of ashes.
Then one day, when my father was muttering to himself over Ficino’s Book of Life, and I was mixing a stock of spring tonics, someone banged open the door and pounded into the shop.
“Damn you,” I muttered into my powders, vexed at the interruption. I wanted to finish my work and go for a walk in the sunshine. Then I looked up to meet the eyes of the strangest woman I’d ever seen.
“Turn me into a man,” was all she said.