The Corset by Laura Purcell
This is the second novel by Laura Purcell, author of The Silent Companions (review here,) in a similarly spooky historical vein.
The story is told from the viewpoints of two young female protagonists from widely differing backgrounds.
Dorothea, wealthy, unmarried, living with her widowed father, evinces unfeminine interests in prisons, the poor, and most unbecoming of all, the quasi-medical practice of Phrenology. She reads pamphlets, has a skull hidden in her room, and examines the heads of female prisoners and inmates to validate her own theories. She is viewed with increasing unease and suspicion by her father who wants her to be married and settled into the life expected for a wealthy young woman of the period. Dorothea has other ideas; indeed, she has a secret passion for David, a police officer she met during her charitable work.
Ruth, poor, friendless, bereaved and forlorn has no real education or prospects and is forced through a cruel twist of circumstance to become an apprentice in a seamstress’ workshop. She is treated with brutality, a witness to cruelty and abuse towards the other apprentices as well as herself, fuelling rage and a desire for revenge. She longs for a friend, for anyone to be on her side.
There have been some dreadful crimes committed, and Ruth is in prison awaiting trail for murder. She admits her guilt to Dorothea and relates the narrative of how these events unfolded. Dorothea listens, but wants to measure Ruth’s head, testing her pet theory that a skull will change and adapt its shape according to the moral turpitude of the owner. Ruth just wants to tell her story before it is too late.
The timeline for this novel is uncomplicated. Dorothea’s chapters are told in the present day –which seems to be around 1820, possibly rather later – and Ruth’s are predominantly in flashback to the preceding few years when a catalogue of horrific events unfolded around her.
Ruth’s early life is one of genteel poverty with a feckless artist father and a come-down-in-the-world mother. The arrival of a baby, and the rapid unravelling of the family leads to her placement with the vile Metyards to work as a seamstress. And then things start to get very dark indeed.
By the time she and Dorothea meet, Ruth is utterly convinced that she possesses a supernatural ability to transfer harm to people via her sewing. Dorothea is gradually drawn into Ruth’s story, learning more than she ever intended, as well as discovering that her pet theories on phrenology are unfounded.
The big question throughout the book is whether or not Ruth has an uncanny ability to use her sewing skills to hurt others. It is cleverly done. Each occasion where Ruth believes she is responsible for hurting another person could be explained away by less eldritch circumstances, but at the same time, there is a genuine possibility that Ruth is the cause. Dorothea is initially sceptical, but as events unfold her beliefs are shaken.
There is an interesting minor plot thread involving Dorothea’s Catholicism, but it never really seems to add much to the story, other than provide another reason for her and her father to disagree.
Secondary characters are well-drawn, particularly the wealthy suitor for Dorothea’s hand and the coarse widow angling to become her stepmother. Dorothea’s father is a satisfyingly gruff paterfamilias with a few dark secrets of his own. His developing relationship with his adult daughter has enough unsettling awkwardness to make the reader keen for Dorothea to find her own path through life away from him.
It was not always easy to distinguish the voices of the two main storytellers - the style used for each woman was not distinct enough, with little difference in tone between them. Whilst one was relating horrors and hardships the other was expressing her equally real fear for her own future, but they both sounded very similar. Considering that Ruth was barely educated, her language differs very little from the wealthy and well-read Dorothea. There is a rare occasion where Dorothea explains a word she uses, but usually this is a medical term relating to phrenology which few but specialists would be familiar with, otherwise the two women’s speech is similar.
Dorothea uses some clangingly awkward turns of phrase, and there are some decidedly modern linguistic turns. This is not enough to spoil the book, but it did tend to take me out of the moment.
It felt at times that the author had worked hard to research relevant social history and she was anxious that we should all know it. Some passages where the women’s prison was discussed read as though they had been lifted from a dissertation on Victorian prison reform, the author’s style not yet being relaxed enough to allow facts to provide colour to the background.
I enjoyed the descriptions of luxurious fabrics and dressmaking techniques, but again it rather felt like they were lifted from an academic paper and dropped into the novel.
There is a splendid denouement where some people get what they deserve, but it feels rushed. It reads like the ending of a short story, rather than a 400-page novel.
I enjoyed this far more than I did the Silent Companions. It feels as though the author is developing her style. The plot is well-paced, there are enough secondary characters to keep a wider interest in the setting, and the history is well-researched.
I look forward to seeing what else she writes.
The Corset by Laura Purcell
Published by Raven Books on 20 Sept 2018