A Pin to See the Peepshow – F Tennyson Jesse

There is nothing like opening an old book. Dark yellow pages, brittle glue, folded corners. This particular book was bound together with Sellotape and given to me on the premise it was an all-time favourite. A big promise. But it completely lived up to this. After a bit of a slow start, this book has ended up being one of the best books I’ve read of 2021 (and possibly ever). I want to re-read it, re-live it again and again.

I started thinking this was your average 20th century read about a young woman and her coming of age. Little did I know this would hand me the best portrayal of the English justice system I’ve ever read. The twist. The ending. Oh my god. It is brilliantly horrible.

We first meet Julia when she is a schoolgirl in 1910s London. She wants excitement, love, and to move out of her parents’ house. We follow her through her life. Through the First World War, her job as a shop girl, and finally her marriage and affair. We see Julia pine for love and sex, falling victim to the pressures of the First World War.

Julia is bright, imaginative and lives in a somewhat fantasy world, making rash decisions with a naive optimism that they will turn out the way they always do in books, happily for the protagonist. Like many of us, she believes she is special, and does not consider that anything really terrible could ever befall her. Death and murder is something that happens to other people, isn’t it? As the pace picks up, Julia finds herself a victim of society’s expectations for both her sex and her class.

If you are expecting an old-fashioned love story or coming of age about affairs, this is so much more. There is crime, justice, and most importantly, miscarriages of justice. A pin to see a peek show delves into the human soul. I cannot imagine how revolutionary this piece must have been at its time of original publication (1930s).

After reading (and raving about it to everyone I saw), I did a bit of research and found the book is based on the very real murder trial of Edith Thompson in the 1920s. Reading about just how much of Edith’s case is replicated in A Pin to See the Peepshow gave me a shiver down my spine. A desperately sad case that shows once again the death penalty is archaic and atrocious.

A Pin to See the Peepshow is undeniably a fantastic piece of feminist prose and if you find a copy, buy it immediately! It’s not currently in print, but I have seen that British Library Women Writers is publishing a new version which is available to pre-order from Waterstones and Amazon.

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