The Abductors by Stuart Cloete (1966) from a friend's garage sale six years ago and then let it mellow on the shelf for awhile before digging in. The pulpy cover and salacious description ("Once a girl is a whore, my dear, there's no going back") looked fun, but the book itself is actually quite long (479 pages, with tiny type) and includes an educational appendix on Cloete's research into the continued problem of women being tricked or sold into prostitution. Which, you know, hasn't really gotten much better since the 1880s, when this book is set, or the 1960s, when it was written.
Lavinia Lenton is a wealthy, sheltered, mother of two in Victorian England. Her husband, Edward, tells her that their governess, Ellen, came on to him in the hallway and needs to be fired and sent to London right away, but that they shouldn't tell her father or anyone else why or where she went. Lavinia, used to doing what her husband says, goes along with it and Ellen arrives in London on the last train of the night with no references and nowhere to go. She is met by a kindly older woman who was expecting a young woman to come help with her grandchildren, but that woman didn't show up. She quickly sweeps Ellen up and deposits her in a nicely decorated apartment in town. Then Ellen notices that there are no door knobs on the inside of the doors, and there are bars in the windows. She's been trapped in a whorehouse and there's nothing she can do to get out.
To make it worse, the whole abduction was planned by her former employer, Edward Lenton, who, contrary to his story to Lavinia, tried to assault Ellen in the hallway and got mad when she fought back and refused to meet him in his bedroom. He wrote to his old friend Mrs. Caramine, the madame of one of the finest whorehouses in London, to arrange for her abduction and to keep her trapped until he could come for her. Edward is really really really not a nice guy.
Mrs. Caramine, who gets a lot of rich backstory, has her reasons for wanting revenge on Edward and suggests to him that he hire a French governess for his two girls, one that she will select. The beautiful Delphine is able to make herself look quite plain and trick Lavinia into thinking she isn't a threat, while she sleeps with Edward and, ultimately, kidnaps the two young Lenton girls and takes them to France to enter the sex trade.
All this is too much for sheltered Lavinia who has a huge wake up call about her husband and starts fighting back. With the help of a handsome local lawyer (and childhood friend), she blackmails her husband into letting her do what she wants, finds where Ellen has been held and arranges for her release, and tracks down her daughters. As the novel progresses, things get more complicated and interconnected and Lavinia shocks wealthy society by throwing her name behind a reform group that is trying to raise the age of consent in England and provide some protection for children and young women who are tricked, kidnapped, or sold by their families.
While the combination of a titillating plot and an educational backbone don't always work well together, the author balances the two well and also throws in some excellent characterization, observant description, and clever twists. Stuart Cloete
(1897-1976) was a well-respected and popular South African author
who was active from the 1930s until his death in the mid-1970s. While he
also wrote some "after the bomb," post-apocalyptic books, The Abductors seems to be his most pulpy title, and most of that is in the marketing.
This is a fun book to read and is much zippier than its length and appendices and works cited lists would make you think. I could have done with a few less rich dudes comparing women to horses and sometimes Lavinia's awakening to equal rights and sexual pleasure is a little hamfisted, but that's easy to forgive in a novel with so much unexpected depth and character. Worth picking up at a garage sale near you!