12 MARCH 2005, Page 37

Lady into urban fox

Andrew Barrow

A FACTORY OF CUNNING by Philippa Stockley Little, Brown, £14.99, pp. 377, ISBN 0316729280 ✆ £12.99 (plus £2.25 p&p) 0870 800 4848 This is a thoroughly rotten book, a squelchingly well-researched period piece with sex, lust, overripeness and what one character calls the ‘odour’ of the scholar permeating every paragraph. It is also, let me quickly add, a remarkable tour de force, jampacked with poetry, verbal fireworks, vitality and charm.

Set during the overheated summer of 1784 and composed entirely of letters and diary extracts, A Factory of Cunning describes a visit to London by a foreign lady calling herself Mrs Fox. On the first page, this tricky character asks one of her correspondents, ‘Does all mankind wish me harm?’ but rapidly reveals herself to be hell-bent on corrupting innocent lives and seeking out people, as a form of sport, to kill or ruin.

This absurdly puffed-up woman is, as we soon learn, an experienced prostitute who has in her time ‘granted harbour to ships of every state, Doges and Dukes among them’. Already on the run, she has come to London intent on a career of ‘straightforward whoring’ but only once in the story that follows does she grant anyone any favours.

Stitched ever more firmly into her petticoats, Mrs Fox is a wonderful literary invention, a tart with no heart and a complete rotter into the bargain. More than once, footnotes inform us that what she has just written is mostly fabricated if not an out-and-out lie. The author’s extraordinary achievement is, of course, to make this worthless vixen sympathetic.

The supporting cast contains some equally attractive charlatans, scoundrels, monstrous hypocrites — there is even a scary old goat of a clergyman — and other metropolitan picturesques, some of whom wear diamonds and yellow satin, others suits ‘hacked from whalebone and horsehair’. Mrs Fox’s chief adversary is a lavender-clad predator called Earl Much, an ‘unmatched skirtsman’ to meet whom is ‘a Passport to Hell’. Along with much fluttering of fans, and fannies, a series of set pieces — prostitutes even ply their trade in the back of a box at Drury Lane — and an ever thickening, tightening and coarsening plot lead to a gloriously ambiguous final scene.

Like many great storytellers, Miss Stockley sows seeds of doubt about her protagonist’s dying moments. The closing pages of this merciless immorality tale could it be intended to mirror the topsyturvy world we live in today? — contain a number of clues suggesting that Mrs Fox might still be alive, and still up to mischief.