“Two Coins” by Sandra Wagner-Wright

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It’s 1883, and newspapers are flying off the shelves in Calcutta, Edinburgh and London. Mary Pigot, lady superintendent of the Scottish Female Mission in Calcutta, has been charged by The Reverend William Hastie with mismanagement and immorality, and she’s fighting back!

After ten years of hard work growing the mission, raising funds and educating women, Mary’s career is now in ruins. With nothing to lose, she takes her case to the Calcutta High Court and sues Hastie for malicious libel. A woman publicly suing a man! It’s just the type of scandal that sells lots of newspapers.

Based on actual events, Two Coins takes readers into Justice William Norris’ steamy courtroom in the middle of monsoon season. The scandal engulfs the entire missionary community, destroying almost everyone involved. Will Mary prevail?

In this riveting historical novel based on true events, political tensions in a Scottish mission in 19th-century Calcutta, India, give rise to a sexual scandal.

KIRKUS REVIEW:

Mary Pigot has been the superintendent of the Ladies’ Association Female Mission in Calcutta for 10 years before the Rev. William Hastie arrives in 1879. Hastie, the principal of the Scottish College, quickly finds fault with Pigot’s policies, practices, and mannerisms; for example, he feels that the orphanage that she manages isn’t up to Scottish standards of cleanliness. Hastie and his comrades also don’t agree with her proselytizing approach: “educate first, convert later—if ever.” Nor does Pigot share Hastie’s resentment toward members of the Free Church, which broke away from the Church of Scotland in 1843. She’s quick to assist anyone who needs help—even members of the local community whom Hastie finds questionable. The growing friction between Pigot and Hastie culminates in a formal investigation of the superintendent followed by libelous claims that she’s abusive, neglectful, incompetent, and immoral. Due to her casual demeanor with male colleagues, her enemies accuse her of “fornication” with an Indian man and a fellow missionary. To clear her name and take back her position, Pigot takes Hastie to court, leading to an unpredictable, sensational trial. Although the book is set in the 1800s, its approach to political, religious, cultural, and gender-related issues is surprisingly relevant. Wagner-Wright (Rama’s Labyrinth, 2015, etc.) paints India’s culture and climate in stunning detail: “March comes on like a slow fire. Another week, and we’ll have the humidity.” The realistic, intricate characters take turns narrating the tale, panoramically revealing themselves through their perceptions. At one point, for example, Hastie narrates, “I stop and take a breath, composing myself for this audience of fools.” The plot’s first half proceeds at an unhurried pace, but when the trial starts, its momentum resembles that of a competitive sporting event. Wagner-Wright’s extensive research allows her to stay remarkably true to history while her creativity brings an outstanding story of courage and fortitude to life.

A powerful story with a vivid setting, compelling plot, and multifaceted characters.

 

MANHATTAN BOOK REVIEW:

In the late Victorian era, there were few chances to be a woman in any position of power. Perhaps the “Angel in the House” was not as strong an idea as it had been a few decades before, but it was nevertheless a lingering ideal. Ironically, it was harder to have any power outside the house when one was a woman with any wealth. Lower-class women were often forced to work outside the house in order to make ends meet, though whether they held power is a matter up for debate.

Then, of course, whenever a woman did hold power, there was always a chance that a man would try to wrest it from her. That is exactly what happened to Mary Pigot, Lady Superintendent of a mission in India.

Based on historical events, Two Coins relates the conflict between Mary Pigot and Reverend William Hastie, the new Principal of the Scottish College in Calcutta. From the first, the two clash. Rev. Hastie is a picture of the stiff, proper Victorian man, while Miss Pigot is rather more lax in her approach to practically everything. Even the way she sits on a sofa is an affront to his sensibilities, and the pride each of them shares means neither can back down when a battle of wills inevitably arises.

The author’s meticulous research shows in the vivid world she presents. Details are presented only as they are needed, but a glossary is provided in the back (though reading it as an ebook makes it a little harder to reference), and the story shines through without being lost in an overly-described setting. Calcutta is presented as straightforwardly as London might, and while I was occasionally confused by a reference, on the whole it speaks well of the writer. The city would not be exotic to most of the characters, and it need not be to the readers. With the exception of Rev. Hastie, the central characters have spent enough time in Calcutta to be familiar with it. Anyone seeking exotic tales of missionaries will want to look elsewhere. This book is for those interested in historical truth.

It is also a book for any who enjoy strong-minded characters. Both men and women have their strengths and foibles, and I found all equally compelling and exasperating. In other words, I found them all perfectly human. I don’t know that I could have enjoyed this book more, and I feel I learned a great deal. A work of historical fiction that is both entertaining and informative is a rare treat, and this is not one that should be passed by.

Reviewed By: Jo Niederhoff

AUTHOR BIOGRAPHY

Sandra Wagner-Wright saw a reference to the Pigot v. Hastie trial and was immediately intrigued. Sandra’s research into the case led her to the British Library, Mission Archives in Edinburgh, and a site visit in Calcutta where she visited the High Court where Mary Pigot’s trial took place. Sandra taught women’s history for over 20 years. Based on a true story, Two Coins is Sandra’s second work of historical fiction.

Sandra Wagner-Wright holds the doctoral degree in history and taught women’s and global history at the University of Hawai`i. When she’s not researching or writing, Sandra enjoys travel, including trips to India, China, and St. Petersburg, Russia. Sandra particularly likes writing about strong women who make a difference. She lives in Hilo, Hawai`i with her family and writes a weekly blog relating to history, travel, and the idiosyncrasies of life. Check out Sandra’s webpage.

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