Say the words “New York, 1871” and what do you think of? Definitely you would agree, a city that is far less glamorous than today, with slums and tenements dotting the Lower East Side and beggars and pickpockets to rival Oliver Twist. This is all brought to life in Ami McKay’s second novel, The Virgin Cure, which tells the tale of Moth, a poor girl born into the tenements on Christie Street. For a girl like Moth, whose mother is a Gypsy and whose father left them when she was only three years old, there is not much to look forward to in her future. The best she can aspire to is becoming a lady’s maid to a wealthy family on the other side of the Park, at worst she faces a life of prostitution and crime until she dies young, in the streets, with nothing to show for her life.
However Moth sets her sights higher. On her many sojourns around her city, she finds she is drawn to the life behind walled gardens, lived by New York’s ultra-rich, and not only does she long for that life but she is driven to achieve it. However as a young girl of the time, she has little control over her fortunes and ends up as a maid to the wealthy, but demanding Mrs Wentworth. She is finally driven away from the household, and embarks on a solo career of begging (eschewing petty thievery) where she notices, and in turn is noticed by, some lovely young ladies who frequent the area around the Bowery.
And so Moth is enticed to the flame presented by Miss Emma Everett, a madam who specialises in taking virgins off the streets and schooling them in her brothel for one month before auctioning them off to the highest bidder. There is a dangerous rumour at the time, that suggests that for a man suffering from the French Pox (syphilis) that lying with a virgin will cure him. Miss Everett’s girls are carefully protected from this vile practice, and as they are lovely, seem well-educated, and are divinely dressed, Moth cannot resist. She is quietly, slowly, but not unwittingly, drawn into the perfumed and powdered world of New York’s high-class prostitution scene.
While there are moments that evoke that other famous story of virgins being auctioned off, this story has its own air of truth as it is based on the history of Dr Sadie, a female physician and one of the few doctors who would care for prostitutes at the time. Although the story is told from Moth’s perspective, Dr Sadie is clearly the driving force behind getting this story told, and footnotes and insertions in the story add depth to the descriptions. All in all, a detailed and elegant story which delivers a memorable insight into New York’s history.
Available now: Hachette RRP$29.99