The Corset: Laura Purcell

★★★

Having enjoyed Laura Purcell’s novel The Silent Companions – a creepily Gothic tale of ghostly presences and paranoia in a remote country house – I was attracted to her follow-up. Once again set in the Victorian period, this has a similar atmosphere to her debut: again Purcell teases us with possible supernatural events, but I felt The Corset didn’t have quite the same eerie originality as The Silent Companions. It focuses on the relationship between two young women: Dorothea Truelove, a wealthy heiress of twenty-five who spends her time doing good works rather than snaring a husband; and Ruth Butterham, a teenage murderess awaiting trial in the prison which is one of Dorothea’s pet projects. Two very different worlds collide as Ruth confesses her history to Dorothea: not just the women’s drastically different upbringings, but also the worlds of science and superstition, logic and fantasy, reason and the unexplained.

Ruth has been bitter since childhood. Her mother was once wealthy, but married for love and has now had ample chance to repent at leisure, while her feckless father has a career of diminishing returns as a portrait painter. Ambitious for Ruth’s future, her mother sends her to a good school, but this only places Ruth among snobbish young girls who make fun of her poverty and torment her – on one memorable occasion, kicking her down in the street with such violence that they break her corset. Hatred and shame worm their way deep into Ruth’s soul. The only thing she’s good at is sewing, for which she’s inherited a rare talent from her mother. When her mother gives her the chance to leave school and work alongside her, Ruth leaps at the chance; but she soon comes to believe that a strange power is seeping from her fingers into her needlework. Whatever she feels or thinks when she stitches something seems to be transferred to the item of clothing and, in due course, to the person who wears it. This gives Ruth terrible power – but power in the hands of one untrained and immature can be an awful thing.

In due course Ruth finds herself working as a seamstress for the fashionable dressmaker Mrs Meteyard and her daughter Kate. This should have been a step up the ladder, but the reality of an apprenticeship is shocking. Abused both physically and emotionally, Ruth struggles to find a place among the other girls working in the shop. Fear, suspicion and distrust of one another creates a punishing environment and, when Ruth loses her only friend, she’s pushed to new and extreme measures. Inspired by the memory of a corset she made for herself as a girl, Ruth conceives a plan to get her revenge upon the world.

In comparison, Dorothea comes across as fairly colourless. She isn’t some simpering miss, because we’re shown that she has a deep interest in phrenology (judging character by the shape of the skull) and she has a powerful social conscience. But, try as she might, it doesn’t look as if she’ll be able to shape her own future. Although she has her heart set on marrying a young policeman, inspired by the justice and nobility of his work, Dorothea must wage a constant battle again her father’s efforts to marry her off to someone with money – or at least a title. Her visits to the poor and criminal give her a bit of vicarious excitement in her life – and her interest in Ruth has a sensationalist tinge that rather undermines her superior intentions. As she listens to more and more of Ruth’s story, she begins to question some elements of her own life.

In principle, it’s a fine story. The intertwining voices of the two protagonists are both well created and, crucially, distinctive. But my problem is that I feel I’ve heard it all before. The idea of having a well-meaning young person visiting a criminal woman in prison, and being caught up in some mysterious story of death and the uncanny, is far from unfamiliar. Obviously Affinity comes to mind, although there’s nothing erotic about the relationship between Dorothea and Ruth; I also felt that there were parallels with Anna Mazzola’s The UnseeingAnd I suppose I didn’t feel that anything in The Corset really lifted it above these other examples of the ‘Victorian women’s prison visit’ genre. Affinity retains its place at the head of the pack. I thought The Silent Companions was much more original in its subtle layering of tension and its choice of focus.

Purcell is a gifted writer and has an acute sensitivity towards the speech patterns and the ‘feel’ of Victorian life, with its privileged and impoverished living cheek-by-jowl. She was especially good at conjuring up the miserable hard work of the seamstress’s trade and she’s obviously done a lot of research into the pseudo-science of phrenology that so fascinates Dorothea (although she’s a tad prone to melodrama in the matter of Captain Meteyard). It’s just that this particular period of historical fiction is becoming rather crowded now, and I’ll be interested to see how Purcell strikes out in her next book to distinguish herself from the other authors writing about Victorian England.

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I received this book from the publisher via Netgalley in return for a fair and honest review

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