“Sacred just means something you’re not meant to think about properly, an’ you should never stop thinking!”
This review contains spoilers.
Fly By Night, Frances Hardinge’s first novel, is the story of a twelve-year-old girl, Mosca Mye, who seizes the chance to flee her damp, dull little town and her neglectful, exploitative uncle and aunt when one Eponymous Clent, professional poet and liar, strolls into town. When he inevitably gets himself into trouble, she rescues him with the help of her vicious pet goose Saracen, and, entranced by the exotic words he brings into a life mainly characterised by workaday terms, follows him to the vibrant and bustling city of Mandelion, a city rife with the politics of the Guilds, where the wrong words are profoundly dangerous, where the Guild of Stationers burns any book not sanctioned by them; a city that has succumbed to censorship through fear of a distant and unmentionable evil. Mosca, Eponymous and Saracen soon find themselves entangled in the dangerous politics of this city, and what follows is a wondrous, steampunky romp through coffee-houses and marriage-houses and public houses and great houses.
It’s worth, I think, examining the significance of the name Mosca for just a minute. “Mosca” means “fly”, of course; Our Heroine is so named because she was born on a day sacred to Palpitattle, He Who Keeps Flies out of Jams and Butter Churns. (I’ll come back to this, because I think it’s important to Hardinge’s feminist agenda in Fly By Night.) But Mosca has literary roots, too: he’s the trickster-servant of Ben Jonson’s rich old prankster Volpone in his 16th-century play of the same name. Jonson’s Mosca weaves words into traps, creating a glorious tapestry of falsehoods, playing on the greed of those around him to win riches for himself and his master.
This may sound like a far-fetched comparison for a middle-grade novel involving a girl with a pet goose, but it would seem more far-fetched to me if Hardinge, who read English at Oxford, were unaware of the significance of the name, which, after all, is hardly a common one. Besides, Fly By Night does feel intensely Jonsonian, sharing many of the concerns of his city plays: an interest in words and how they can be used to deceive and to create, an intense and joyous depiction of the anarchic energies of the city, a careful amorality which allows people to be people, not straightforwardly “good” or straightforwardly “bad” (mostly).
Mosca wet her lips, took a breath and began to speak. She pulled out rags of wedding words she had heard by listening through the thin marriage-house walls. She patched them with pompous-sounding phrases from her father’s books. She stitched the whole together with the scarlet thread of her own imagination.
Here, Mosca and her Jonsonian namesake seem almost to come together. The posthumous wedding ceremony she creates for her friend the Cakes, who lives in secret shame because her parents were not married, has a palimpsestic, stitched-together quality which bears a heavy resemblance to similar ceremonies concocted by that other great Jonsonian trickster, The Alchemist’s Subtle, who mashes up alchemical texts, popular literature, Biblical exegeses and thieves’ cant (this last is something which Fly By Night is particularly interested in) to con gullible Londoners out of considerable amounts of money.
The difference lies in the intent; and this, I think, is the crux of what Hardinge is doing in Fly By Night. For while Subtle’s purpose in conning his “gulls” is essentially greed, Mosca is creating her imaginative tapestry at least partly for altruistic reasons, to help the Cakes feel better, and to gain her esteem. While both Moscas, and indeed Subtle, are amoral to some extent – in that we find ourselves rooting for them despite their often questionable actions – Jonson never intends us seriously to excuse the actions of his liars. Volpone‘s Mosca is tried and punished for his lies; Subtle’s con ultimately fails, his anarchic potential contained by the play’s obvious artifice. Hardinge’s Mosca, on the other hand, is very definitely valorised by her story: her ending is left open, the anarchism of a girl who can think and speak for herself remaining uncontained and full of dangerous potential:
“What can I offer a secretary but a life of sleeping in hedges, chicken stealing and climbing out through midnight windows to avoid paying innkeepers in the morning?”
Nothing, except…loose strands of possibility snaking like maypole ribbons. Roads fringed with russet bracken, roads sparkling with frost, hill roads split with the rising sun, forest roads livid with fallen leaves, the Crystal Court with its million windows throwing tiaras of rainbow colour upon the floor, ladies with legends of days past embroidered along their trains, wine as dark as blackberry juice sipped under a green-fringed canopy, accents as strange as a walking cane worn by another hand, estuaries bold with man-o’-war ships and perhaps beyond it the shimmering, much-dreamed-upon expanse of the sea…
Jonson was an upper-class, classically-educated man who may have loved words, but decidedly did not love those who used them for less than honest ends (as, for instance, Eponymous Clent does in this novel). His plays feature, and often admire, the small and voiceless of his society; but they always contain and judge them in the end. Hardinge, on the other hand, gives a voice to these voiceless and refuses to judge them for what they say: her rewriting of The Alchemist and of Volpone places the voiceless front and centre, and if it doesn’t give them power, exactly, it gives them agency, possibility, potentiality in a way which Jonson doesn’t. Which is why it’s important that Fly By Night switches the gender of Jonson’s Mosca: because who, in Jonson’s world and in the vaguely seventeenth-century setting of Hardinge’s novel, is less powerful than twelve-year-old girls?
There’s something that needs to be said with regards to Mosca’s characterisation about the role of niceness in femininity. Mosca is not nice. She is named after a fly-god. She has a “ferretty face”, she wears breeches under her skirts (a habit left over from her home town, where young girls frequently wear breeches because it’s simply more practical in a place that’s about 50% water), she reads. She steals, she lies, she tells tales – because she has to, because she is “unloved”, because she has no other choice, and Hardinge refuses to punish her for it as Jonson punishes his characters. It would be wrong to call Mosca a Strong Female Character: she is an imperfect female character and she is a real female character, neither sanitised nor demonised.
And this, it seems to me, is ultimately what Hardinge’s project is in Fly By Night: rewriting Jonson’s male-dominated, cautiously self-contained plays to open up their anarchic potential, to expand on everything that troubles Jonson and his contemporaries: the rising poor, able to think for themselves, to transgress the boundaries set for them.
In case you couldn’t tell, I loved Fly By Night; it’s exactly the kind of book I hoped it would be, a twisty and beautifully-written steampunky yarn with a current of thought running deep below its surface. Possibly one of my favourites of 2015.