TEN THOUSAND STITCHES by Olivia Atwater
Orbit p/b £8.99
Reviewed by Nigel Robert Wilson
Euphemia Reeves, known as Effie, is a humble, industrious domestic servant in the employ of Lord Culver. She is an intelligent young woman who dislikes how the world is ordered but, like the rest of us, gets on with it regardless until she develops a crush on Benedict, the younger brother of her employer.
Lady Culver is organising a ball, and there are not enough servants available for both the necessary preparation and the usual daily round. The complaint is that her ladyship dismisses any servant she disapproves of and fails to replace them. She also has a preference for French maids and expects her servants to adopt a French name and accent.
Whilst serving drinks at the ball – something that, in reality, a footman would do – Effie meets Benedict again and needs to cool off in the garden. Here she collides with Lord Blackthorn, whose real name is Juniper Jubilee, an elf to the servant class who possesses a facile understanding of English society in the Regency period and seeks to sample its pleasures. Effie’s circumstances confuse the elf, who appears to lack any malice.
Concerned about her fairy follower, Effie reports his presence to the housekeeper, who, unable to see Lord Blackthorn, tells her off for making things up. The genial Blackthorn, however, magics away the mess left by the entire party at the ball. Effie is now frightened that he will now steal her immortal soul. On the other hand, Blackthorn has concluded that the real challenge in life is to become a better person, whether a fairy, elf or human.
Effie overcomes her fears to make a bargain with Blackthorn that in order to marry Benedict Culver within a hundred days, she must add a stitch of embroidery to Blackthorn’s coat for every minute of those days – ten thousand stitches in total.
It becomes fairly obvious that this is a reconstruction of the Cinderella fable. Atwater confirms this in an Afterword at the back of the book. She has, however, substituted an elven sugar daddy for that famous fairy godmother. Throughout the tale, Atwater has her tongue lodged firmly in her cheek, happily rolling out the absurdities in class attitudes and values. She draws a lot of humour from the way servants perceive events as opposed to that of their presumed betters, all the way down to the condition of the ballroom floor. In this respect, the story becomes an education for the uninitiated and is very funny.
In places, the humour becomes reminiscent of the Victorian satirist W S Gilbert, who wrote the lyrics to the Gilbert & Sullivan operetta `Iolanthe’ about fairy influences in the House of Lords. For example, in fairyland Lord Blackthorn is only a lord because nobody has told him he isn’t, whilst mortals can only access passage to fairy by finding a place where the worlds are close, turning around three-times widdershins (that’s anti-clockwise or witch-ways to the uninitiated) and walking backwards. Very, very Gilbertian!
Whilst in fairyland, Effie meets Lady Hollowvale, the other half of Dora from `Half a Soul and, with the generous assistance of the forever industrious brownies, creates a dress out of wishes. Needless to say, the story’s outcome is not as expected, and all characters in the tale learn a very useful lesson.
The moral of the tale – and all fairy tales have to reflect sound morality – is that humans don’t really need fairies to play tricks as they lie to themselves all the time. Good story and great fun!