A Pin to See a Peepshow is a fictionalized retelling of a famous British true crime. Jesse, who was a contributor to the Notable British Trials series, chose to make the life of her main character and the details of the crime slightly different from the actual events.
Julia Almond is an unusual girl who projects the assurance that her life is going to be different from that of the others around her. She has a sense of style and after finishing schooling, is able to find work at a small dressmakers.
Julia has lived mostly in a daze of romantic daydreams except for her work at the shop, where she thrives and is promoted. But she finds her real life boring and seems to care only for her dog, Bobbie. She is waiting for a great love.
What she gets is Mr. Starling, a friend of her father’s. During the First World War, her father dies. Her mother can’t afford the house even with Julia’s small salary, so her uncle, aunt, and cousin move in and begin to order things as they want. Julia’s bedroom, which has been her sanctuary, is invaded by her cousin Elsa. Julia is told that Bobbie can’t sleep in her room. She kicks up enough of a fuss to get that changed but finds Elsa trying to lure Bobbie away from her. When Julia finds living at home unbearable, she decides at twenty to marry Mr. Starling, whose wife has died and who looks a lot more handsome in his uniform. This, of course, does not work out well, but she gets along for years until she meets Leonard Carr, a sailor seven years younger, who begins pursing her.
Jesse’s message is that Julia would not have ended up as she does if she had not been lower class and financially insecure. Any poorer and she would have just left with her lover. Richer and divorce would have been commonplace, but to her it was a scandal. Further, although she was innocent of murder, she was convicted because of her adultery and the difference in age between her and her lover.
Jesse paints an open-eyed but sympathetic picture of Julia. Although I could have done without some of the sections at the end where others reflect on the execution, it is a powerful and affecting piece of writing.