Raven Books | 2018 (20 September) | 395p | Review copy | Buy the book
Dorothea Truelove, a young and beautiful heiress, feels that she has little control over her own life, that she is in danger of just sitting around while her father arranges a marriage to a suitably grand personage she will be tied to for the rest of her life. She finds an escape in charitable work, particularly visiting women in prisons that she herself helps to fund. This also gives her the chance to practice her passion – phrenology. Dorothea believes that the disposition of a character to commit crimes can be seen in the shape of the perpetrator’s skull and that their moral improvement will be reflected in the skull’s changing shape. She now has another young woman on which to test her theories – the teenage seamstress Ruth Butterham, imprisoned and awaiting trial for murder.
Ruth couldn’t be any more different from Dorothea. Having begun her life in gentile poverty, tragic, terrible circumstances forced Ruth and her mother to the very depths of what they can survive. Ruth has much to feel bitter about but she also feels guilt – not because she murdered anyone but because she believes that she inadvertently killed with her needle and thread, that some supernatural power had turned every stitch into a weapon, driven by Ruth’s grief and fury.
The Corset tells the story of these two young women, one barely more than a child, in alternate sections as Ruth tells her life to Dorothea who then reflects on what she has learned and how this must affect her own beliefs and life. Ruth’s story challenges everything Dorothea believes, that crime can be explained rationally by the dimensions of a skull. There is little that is rational in what Ruth describes. Can she be believed? Can this murderous supernatural power really be true? But, whether it’s true or not, the brutality and cruelty that Ruth has suffered has much to teach Dorothea about the nature of evil and much of it is very much the work of real men and women.
Ruth’s tale is extraordinary and I was engrossed by it. Laura Purcell demonstrated her fine storytelling powers in The Silent Companions, a truly frightening and chilly ghost story. These are on show again although now the dark powers are much more ambiguous while the evil of man is thrown much more into the light. As a result, this isn’t so much a frightening story as a disturbing one. Ruth’s experiences are horrific and they are explored in detail from the very beginning. There is a shocking scene early on that I must admit was too much for me and it proved to be a stumbling block that I had to overcome. I’m glad that I did overcome it because the rest of the novel kept me in its grip. But this is undoubtedly a very dark tale for much of the time and Ruth’s words, as she describes what has happened, are powerfully descriptive.
Ruth forms the heart of the novel and it’s her sections which I enjoyed the most. Dorothea did little to win me over at the beginning, not least because of her dubious preoccupation with phrenology. She is also privileged and aware that she is. Money is important to her, as is her status. And, although she fancies herself in love with a lowly policeman, one can’t help wondering if that is all a childlike romantic dream. But as her story progresses and she becomes more self-aware, as well as more aware of the horror that society is inflicting on its poorest members, I warmed to her a little more. And Dorothea’s story does develop in a quite surprising if possibly not entirely unexpected way. But the Ruth sections are superb.
The mood of the novel, its menace and evil force, loom so large over the novel, making it such an appropriate read during these long dark evenings. This is the perfect time of year for a Gothic novel and The Corset hits the spot so well. I love Laura Purcell’s writing as well as her eye for historical detail. The Corset isn’t fixed to a particular time, it’s set in a past in which evil flourishes. There’s a kind of dark fairy tale feel to it, an unreal world in which the relationship between mothers and daughters, between fathers and daughters can take on a frightening, shadowy quality. Dorothea’s surname of Truelove contributes to the symbolism as she worries before the looming possibility of an evil stepmother. There are demons and angels in this novel, whether or not the supernatural haunts Ruth’s stitches.
The Silent Companions