Sarah Valentine, No Great Expectations Part 1 by Philip Valentine Coates

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Sarah Valentine, No Great Expectations Part 1 by Philip Valentine Coates

Category: Biography
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: John Van der Kiste
Reviewed by John Van der Kiste
Summary: The first in a trilogy about the author's great-great-grandmother Sarah, born in dire poverty in the East End of London in 1819, it reads less like a biography than a novel. A powerful tale of life in unpromising conditions almost unimaginable two centuries later, if slightly repetitive in its background detail.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 280 Date: November 2016
Publisher: AuthorHouseUK
ISBN: 978-1524665425

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This is the first book in a trilogy about the author's great-great-grandmother, whose story was handed down orally through the family by his grandmother Florence, the subject being her grandmother-in-law. He supplemented the information she gave him with his own research from family records and material from social historians such as the noted contemporary chronicler Henry Mayhew.

Sarah was the first of several children born in dire poverty to Jim and Sarah Valentine, and these pages tell her story from birth in December 1819 to her eighteenth birthday. Everything is vividly conveyed, from the poorly-clothed barefoot children in crowded living quarters in the Whitechapel Road area, without a lock on the door and with no possessions worth stealing except for the occasional shilling, to the noisy public houses with their fist-fights and the dirty, evil-smelling streets with sewage overflowing down the alleys and where epidemics spread all too rapidly. Food was scarce, water was polluted, and even children were often given ale to drink, albeit in moderate quantities, as it was not contaminated and therefore deemed safer.

As far as Jim and Sarah were concerned, their dreary existence presented nothing in the way of opportunities apart from merely existing, with Jim's meagre earnings from working as a porter in the local market or in the docks just enough to allow him the occasional glass of beer and to provide for the family. All too often there was another baby on the way – a baby which was not always strong enough to survive the first few months. Poverty bred crime, and if Jim was lucky enough not to be relieved of any of the remaining wages in his pocket at the tavern, there was the ever-present danger of a thief sneaking into the house overnight while they were asleep.

For Sarah the younger and her siblings, there was likewise no future to speak of, barring short-term financial gains from exploitation by those who were prepared to groom her for a life of crime, be it with a gang of pickpockets or even as a potential lady of the night. At the age of seven she was learning how to rob unwary individuals at the local markets and get away with it most of the time. She would then celebrate with a share of the gin her accomplices had bought, before returning home drunk and being thrown out by her father who feared she would bring disgrace not only on herself but on the whole family.

The tale of squalor, infant mortality, pawning possessions to pay the rent, and life in the workhouse among other hardened criminals in the making as well as madmen and madwomen, proceeds with no sign of light at the end of the tunnel. At the end of the last chapter she has reached the age of eighteen, with her life at a low ebb. To coin a phrase (or echo an old song title), the only way is up.

As is so often the case when authors are writing their family history and telling the story from several generations ago, the book reads more like a novel. The author advises us in his foreword that his audience needs to bear in mind that 'it is not some made up work of fiction, these events actually happened'. His intention has clearly been to produce a work of biography, although the style and immediacy of his narrative might suggest otherwise.

As such it is a powerfully-written documentation of life in unpromising conditions which are almost unimaginable to most of us two centuries later, with the storytelling gift of Charles Dickens, who obviously provided inspiration for the title. If it has a fault, I would suggest that overall it is a degree repetitive. The social background and grim environment of what it was like in the east end of London is conveyed vividly but sometimes worked a little too often with more repetition than necessary, and some editing might not have come amiss. That said, I can thoroughly recommend this title and look forward to a continuation of the saga.

If this appeals, we can also recommend a novel of contemporary London, Jupiter Williams by S I Martin. For a history of the capital itself by an expert chronicler of the subject, there is also London: The Concise Biography by Peter Ackroyd, and for a life of one of the foremost novelists of the age and the title's inspiration, Charles Dickens: A Life by Claire Tomalin.

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Buy Sarah Valentine, No Great Expectations Part 1 by Philip Valentine Coates at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Sarah Valentine, No Great Expectations Part 1 by Philip Valentine Coates at


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