Prostitutes and female criminals abound in the last few years' crop of neo-Victorian novels, including such popular successes as Michel Faber's The Crimson Petal and the White, Sheri Holman's The Dress Lodger, and Sarah Waters' Fingersmith. But the figure of the upwardly mobile courtesan or crook--the sex worker as prudent entrepreneur--owes much more to Daniel Defoe's Moll Flanders or Roxana than to any Victorian text. Certainly, the sheer gumption of most neo-Victorian prostitutes has little to do with the demoralized Victorian literary variety . Despite the rather breathless testimonials in the back matter ("masterpiece"), Linda Holeman's The Linnet Bird does not constitute a brilliant addition to this batch of neo-Victorian novels: the plot dawdles in the middle and goes into hyperdrive at the end; the protagonist, Linnet Gow, veers suspiciously towards the Mary-Sueish; and, no matter their age, sex, education, or social standing, every character "speaks" in the same, slightly stilted turns of (often cliched) phrase. From an academic's point of view, however, The Linnet Bird offers an unintentional window onto the current state of "popular" thought about nineteenth-century culture--in particular, as women experienced it.
Strictly speaking, most of the novel takes place from the late 1820s to the mid-1830s, although contemporary historical events do not impinge on the younger Linny Gow's consciousness. Indeed, Linny's childhood and adolescence set some sort of new record for imaginary awfulness. Her mother dies when Linny is just a child, leaving her in the brutal care of her stepfather, Ram Munt. (Luckily, before she departs this earth, mom sees to it that Linny learns to read.) Ram, in need of cash, begins selling the prepubescent Linny's favors to any male customer within reach (cue W. T. Stead on the white slave trade)--until, one night, he sends her to an elderly man in the last throes of syphillis (cue Victorian veneral disease). After a struggle in which she manages to kill him before he kills her, she is dumped in a river--along with a dead male prostitute--and left to die. Obviously, as there's still a few hundred pages worth of novel left, she doesn't. Instead, horribly scarred, Linny goes to work as a full-time prostitute (cue Victorian prostitution), hoping--in good, business-like form--to make enough money to emigrate to America. This plan doesn't succeed. Instead, Linny finds herself taken in by a doctor's "genteel" son and his insanely devout mother, and they set her on the path to a new life as a "proper" woman. But, when Linny ships out to India with another young woman, things don't quite go as planned...
For the professional Victorianist, this novel reads like a malformed melange of contemporary scholarship on nineteenth-century Britain (and British India) and historical romance conventions. On the one hand, Linny's narrative apparently--I use that word advisedly--offers a crude feminist critique of nineteenth-century culture. All of the novel's Englishwomen stifle under the weight of social etiquette; the few who dare to resist are eventually broken by marital strife, racial prejudice, or sheer boredom. Meanwhile, just about every man unthinkingly rejoices in his financial, physical, professional, and (of course) sexual power. (I'll discuss the exceptions to this rule in just a moment.) On the other hand, Linny offers an equally crude interpretation of British imperialism. Herself oppressed on account of her sex and past, Linny achieves cross-class and cross-racial solidarity with the Indians and Pashtuns--with, one must say, surprisingly little effort. She learns Hindi, befriends her ayah and the cook, attempts to save a Pashtun chief from a rape charge, and is nurtured by an Indian midwife.
In an odd twist of psychological development, the novel somehow translates Linny's years of sexual abuse into moral "liberation." There's something rather disquieting about this incarnation of standpoint theory: our protagonist (who, mind you, is in her teens for most of this novel) survives the loss of her mother, rape, attempted murder, a miscarriage, and a violently abusive husband--but, at least, she comes out of these experiences with remarkably modern attitudes to middle-class mores and racial politics. Understandably, she lacks much in the way of sexual response, but even that psychological scar furthers her literal and figurative mobility--until, that is, she runs into the wrong man.
It would be nice to write off the novel's attitude to male sexuality as the product of Linny's POV, but there's no internal evidence that would allow us to do so. Holeman almost always represents English male sexuality as predatory, diseased, and violent. She lays things on especially thick when it comes to Linny's husband, Somers Ingram: he's a homosexual (gasp!) who preys on teenage boys, beats Linny repeatedly, brutalizes her in their only act of sexual intercourse, and eventually subsides into a hulking, malaria-ridden wreck. (Somers would be more gothic if less grotesque.) We eventually discover that Somers was himself a badly abused child, yet there is no indication that the reader is meant to sympathize with him; at "best," he becomes the extreme product of a patriarchal system based on the exploitation of the weak. Significantly, the two sympathetic Englishmen, Shaker and Charles Snow, are themselves marginal figures: Shaker's nickname derives from a nervous palsy that wrecks both his financial and his professional standing, while Snow loses his social position once his superiors discover that he is actually half-Indian. When Linny has sex with Shaker, she deflowers him.
Not surprisingly, the Indian and Pashtun characters are idealized foils to the novel's wrecked Englishmen and -women. Like most novels on Anglo-Indian themes, The Linnet Bird makes much of both India's "color" and its poverty, but the Indian characters exist in order to admire Linny's free-thinking attitudes to race. Malti, her ayah and, in Linny's mind, equal--"And so we lay in the darkness, a small Indian flower and a small British bird" (243)--adores Linny passionately; the cook allows her to help him prepare food; the servants speak English to her (a skill, we're told, they normally conceal) and help her learn Hindi; and so on. While Linny is perfectly self-conscious about her social performances, both she and the novel seem unaware that her new-and-improved morality is itself presented as a matter for subaltern applause.
There's something unintentionally comical, then, about Linny's salvation, which comes in the shape of a handsome Pashtun chieftain (really) on a magnificent stallion (no, really). In one of the novel's few attempts to engage with a key trope of Raj fiction--namely, the rape accusation--Linny tries to exonerate the chieftain in question, Daoud, from charges brought by a young woman trying to cover up evidence of her own sexual shenanigans.  (In some ways, it's even worse than that, since the soldiers pick Daoud almost at random.) In the pastoral elysium temporarily occupied by Daoud and some of his tribesmen, as well as some herders, Linny finds temporary relief from the shackles of her past: "Here, in this Kashmir camp, I could be who I actually was. Nobody cared what had been done to me, and what I had done, least of all Daoud. I felt myself opening, unlocking, the hinges rusted and giving way with a tearing sound like wings of birds as they startle into flight" (333). In other words, Kashmir offers Linny her first taste of authenticity--and, along with it, sexual desire. Not surprisingly, the exotic Daoud not only becomes Linny's true love, but also fathers her child, making this ultimately truncated relationship both figuratively and literally fruitful.
Linny may be redeemed, but some readers may feel that she has an odd way of showing it, since, in the novel's inversion of a Victorian trope--false accusations of madness--she murders her husband in order to escape being consigned to an insane asylum. This, apparently, shows her pluck. After buying off the doctor (apparently, English doctors, unlike Indian midwives, have no ethics), Linny returns to England and forms a non-traditional extended family with her son, Shaker, and Shaker's wife. Not only does this family challenge Victorian social norms, but also it promises to somehow "heal" English culture through Indian medicine (Shaker becomes a homeopath; Linny publishes a book on plants) and, of course, Linny's son.
Some readers may accuse me of sounding rather grumpy, and they're right: I finished this novel feeling distinctly disgruntled. The novel repeatedly accuses the English of lacking basic human sympathies for the "Other," whether poor or Indian, but itself lacks anything resembling nuance or, indeed, sympathy. Indian women are Good, as are most Indian men. Nearly all English men are Bad, unless they are New Men, in which case they are Good. Englishwomen should be Good, but English society turns them Bad (or pathetic, in which case they become Good--albeit dead or addicted to drugs). Holeman does make some attempt to reinvent some familiar Raj or Victorian tropes, but--for this reader at least--the novel collapses under the weight of Linny's self-congratulation.
 For a twist on this theme, see Wilkie Collins' The New Magdalen, which tracks a "reclaimed" woman's attempt to find a place for herself in British society; ultimately, she marries, but she and her enlightened husband must emigrate. Cf. Dickens' David Copperfield: the prostitute is "allowed" to get married, but only after she emigrates to Australia (and well away from the other colonists, it seems).
[ 2] Given the novel's chronology, it only marginally qualifies as Raj fiction. In the Raj literary tradition, the most famous ruminations on the false rape charge are E. M. Forster's A Passage to India and Paul Scott's brilliant The Raj Quartet; see also Jenny Sharpe and Nancy Paxton.