Review by Júlia Braga Neves
Kate Worsley’s She Rises takes the reader into an adventurous journey on and offshore, narrating the stories of Luke and Louise Fletcher who lead very distinct lives, him being a sailor in the British Navy and her being the servant of a wealthy smuggler’s daughter. Worsley’s first novel minutely depicts the daily routine of her two protagonists in order to emphasise the discrepancy between male and female gender roles in 18th Century Britain. While Luke’s days are marked by constant violence and struggles with other men aboard the ‘Essex’ and other vessels, Louise’s life is led by her domesticated and subservient behaviour towards her mistress, Rebecca Handley.
The story begins with Luke Fletcher violently being thrown aboard the Essex by other men in order to take up his job as a sailor. Louise Fletcher, his sister, begins her story by describing her leaving her job as a dairymaid to start work as Rebecca’s maid. Throughout most of the novel, Worsley intersperses one chapter for Luke and one for Louise; his chapters narrated by a heterodiegetic narrator and hers in an autodiegetic voice. These chapters overtly emphasise Luke’s and Louise’s roles as working class man and woman, as they exhaustively describe their activities as a sailor and as a lady’s maid, leading the reader to understand their gender roles as inflexible and impossible to transcend.
These strict gender roles are only disrupted when life on the coast and at sea are brought together in one voice that is able to articulate more flexibility in the embodiment of gender and to question social rules that determine one’s gendered position in society. In fact, Worsley invests in shifts in the narrator voice to remind us that history is also narrated according to gender position. In narrating Luke’s stories overseas, she mainly employs an omniscient narrator to indicate an authoritative voice that can speak for all; Louise’s life, on the other hand, is related in first person, in the form of a letter or a diary, reflecting upon the idea of personal archive and individual narrative as important sources of historiography.
The investment in narrator voices and in detailed descriptions of her protagonists’ social environments also raises important questions regarding the relation between gender and sexuality. Same-sex desire is constantly being depicted throughout the novel both in Luke’s and in Louise’s lives, but the distance the heterodiegetic narrator gives Luke’s story often veils homosexual relations among men with violent fights, alcohol abuse and sexual violence towards the women that board the vessel. Homosexual desire is thus better situated in Louise’s character and first person narration, as she directs her writings to Rebecca, devoting herself entirely to her lover’s well being and doing whatever it takes to be with her again. This devotion is sometimes, however, degrading, since it lowers the protagonist to a position of subservience and obedience, especially in terms of class relation: as a woman servant, she is doomed to remain oppressed and dominated by her mistress.
Louise’s agency is only attained at the turning point of the novel, which is marked by the encounter of Luke’s and his sister’s narratives. Because the narrative up to this point follows in slow pace, it becomes slightly confusing to grasp the very abrupt change in the narrative voice, and the reader might feel puzzled in understanding what is to come of the story. But it is at this turning point that Louise manages to assert her agency and act upon the struggles she encounters, altering all features that had hitherto formed her character. This sudden shift in the plot is a peculiar one, since it leads the story to an unimaginable direction, making the reader both curious and uneasy about the new ambience Worsley’s characters encounter.
Worsley raises many interesting questions regarding gender, sexuality and historiography in She Rises. As a first novel, the development of these topics seems to be the beginning of a promising literary project, which combines historical research, and reflections upon feminist and queer theories.