4 October 2018

Review - The Corset by Laura Purcell

Cover by David Mann
The Corset
Laura Purcell
Raven Books, 20 September 2018
HB, 416pp

I'm grateful to the publisher for an advance copy of this book via NetGalley.

The Corset stitches together the lives of two young women in (I think) the early Victorian period.

Dorothea Truelove is an heiress in her mid 20s, unmarried, socially isolated since her (deceased0 mother converted to Roman Catholicism and in danger of being labelled a spinster. While she fills her time productively with prison visiting and the study of phrenology (the notion, long since disproved, that character and behaviour could be inferred by measurements of the head) this isn't enough to satisfy her father that she has a decent place in Society and she's being encouraged - rather, pressured - to find a husband.

Ruth Butterham has fallen on very hard times. Raised in genteel poverty, she has lost both her parents and, though a truly awful chain of circumstances, ended in prison, still in her teens, accused of murder. The irony of this is that as we gradually learn, her situation in New Oakgate Prison is less precarious - the charge apart - than much of her life to date.

We hear Ruth's story as told to Dorothea, who has her own agendas and prejudices - trying to reconcile what she's told with head measurements, musing on how far the character is fixed or can improve (we learn the reason for her obsession with that very late in the book) and, very gradually, falling apart because of the tension between her love - or perhaps infatuation - with David, a handsome (but poor) police constable, and the pressure to marry some fusty (but rich) suitor.

I found Dorothea, for much of a book, to be a rather annoying character. At first she seems introduced mainly as a device to narrate Ruth's much more interesting (and often harrowing) story and as such, she often seems to slow down, comment on or filet what Ruth's trying to tell us. While Dorothea's own family situation is less than ideal she seems, to use a modern concept, very unconscious of her privilege and it's easy to dislike her.

That would, though, be a mistake. I won't say much because of spoilers but Dorothea does have her own interest in Ruth's story and while her situation may seem less desperate, she is also a woman in a nakedly patriarchal society, unlikely to be able to find happiness or indeed, any life at all in which her own choices are respected.

In that respect Dorothea's in the same situation as Ruth. Purcell is an adept at plotting, and you can only really appreciate how the two women's experiences intertwine and question each other once you've finished the book. In the same way, you can only understand the hints of the supernatural which runs like a silver thread through the story when all the acts of this tragedy are completed. And when you grasp both those things I think you'll forgive a lot - not least Dorothea's air of self-satisfaction ("David lacks my discipline, even with his police training") and judgement, and Ruth's fatalism and self-doubt - because it's clear these things have been instilled in the two. Dorothea notes that "As with most female subjects, a hollow is apparent at Self-Esteem". Ruth is convinced of her own guilt, and who's going to take the trouble to review what really happened and decide whether that actually is the case? The arm of the patriarchy here is indeed long, and strong. A great theme of this book is the way men treat women and indeed, the way they treat women with whom they have become bored, or who are inconvenient or socially embarrassing: the book is scathing and illustrates this cruelty from many different angles - without ever yielding men the chief place in the story. What happens here is sometimes painful to read, but I found my reading sustained by a sympathy for Ruth and a growing sympathy for Dorothea. They are great characters.

What I found slightly harder at first was what I saw as a sense of unevenness in the language. This is a Victorian set novel, and the characters generally behave and speak as Victorians yet we also sometimes get what to me look like very modern phrases: "I'm going to check you",  "set it up", "crime scene" or "We're in this together, now". It's hard to think Purcell would be sloppy about such matters - much of the prose in this book is so on point: (repeated references to the copper smell of money, "The spirit went but the filth lingered", "It whispered of revenge and power, of taking back control" and many, many more) that I suspect either she knows from her research that these phrases are perfectly apt (I recal my reaction the first time I came across the mention of baseball in Jane Austen) or, perhaps, more daringly, that they are a hint we should be a bit more generous in seeing "historical" characters as "people like us".

After all, unless you were Boris Johnson, you wouldn't pick up a book set in Ancient Rome and expect it to be in Latin. And there's little that is worse that an over-fusty pastiche, Wilkie Collins style.

I hope this is, in the end, a minor criticism.  The book as a whole is so convincing, has so much truth and, to continue the (relevant) fabric metaphor, is so deftly woven together. It is a heartfelt book, a damning book, an exciting book and above all, a thoroughly enthralling book which simply demands to be finished.

For more information about The Corset, see the publisher's website here.

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