In nineteenth-century England, twelve-year-old Linny Gow lives on the infamous Vauxhall Road, a resident of the poverty-tainted streets of Liverpool, England, where her mother toiled as a bookbinder until succumbing to a fever. With no pause for mourning, the man who took them in, Ram Munt, sells the child's innocence to a succession of men, her youth attracting the coin of paying customers.
Eventually, Ram sells Linny to a man with the darkest of intentions, her torn body tossed into the Mersy and rescued only by chance. Badly wounded, the child is left to her own devices, resorting to sidewalk prostitution. Linny's days and nights on the Liverpool streets are harrowing as she plies her trade in a dead-end world. A disposable, low-class prostitute, Linny is relegated to back alleys, where clients feel free to abuse and demean her: "Poverty and inequality are part of the God-given universe."
Linny yearns for another life, the safety of a genteel, ritualized society to keep the chaos of poverty at bay, mannered constructs separating one element of society from another. Still she endures the random violence of the streets. Her own meager resources bring Linny to the edge, restricted by a lack of choices until a chance meeting with a selfless young man ushers her into a place of security and acceptance, but one that is equally treacherous for all its civility.
Given an opportunity to sail to India in 1830 on one of the vessels tagged “The Fishing Fleet” for the young women who hope for advantageous marriages on the sub-continent, Linny escapes the England of her birth. From the tumultuous ocean voyage to her instant infatuation with this new country, Linny remains a fraud, an outsider, confined as much by her own fears as the constraints of English Imperialism.
“There is an obvious underlying hostility toward the Indians...perfectly ordinary British men and women...don a voluminous imperial cloak as if it is their right, their duty." In no uncertain terms, Linny is instructed to respect the status quo, this mini-England shadowing the homeland, recreated on Indian soil to comfort and protect the foreigner’s displacement. But her past returns with a vengeance in the person of Somers Ingram, a dissolute man she is forced to marry to protect her reputation.
After her own harsh childhood, Linny develops a sensitivity to those who are unseen by the ruling class, drawn to this place and these people. The silent workers are everywhere, attending to the infinitesimal needs of the autocratic, the constant attentions of quiet servitude. But any security Linny fancies is quickly surrendered in this brutal marriage; still, she refuses to be victimized by circumstances.
This woman is a survivor, overcoming incredible odds to establish a life of security that is threatened by her husband and his need for vengeance. Linny is willing to resort to any measure to ensure her safety from harm and independence, eventually released from the confines of an intractable existence. From her early escape from the arms of Morpheus to the opiate dreams that soothe her broken spirit, Linny is a true Victorian heroine, a woman larger than the era that seeks to repress her every action, a fearless champion of her own independence.