Desert Isle Keeper
The Dress Lodger
The Dress Lodger is a tour de force, a boldly imaginative novel that is nonetheless based on fact. Reading it is like biting into a rich, dark chocolate: almost too delicious to bear, all sorts of scents and tastes rushing throughout your mind. The writing is sumptuous, conjuring up the period with a wry, unerringly incisive view. The subject matter is undeniably grim, but Holman’s juxtaposition of rich writing with the poverty-filled existences of her characters relieves the unmistakably miserable story.
It is 1831, and Sunderland, England, is in the midst of a cholera epidemic. There is a quarantine in effect and life, hard though it already is, is getting worse. People are dying, jobs are lost, and hope, not much to begin with, has completely vanished. Gustine, a 15-year old potter’s assistant by day making chamber pots and decorative vases, at night is a dress lodger: a prostitute who rents a beautiful dress that will hopefully attract a higher class of clientele. She works those two jobs to support her baby, who was born with an astounding birth defect.
Dr. Henry Chiver is a doctor recently returned from Edinburgh, where he was involved with the Burke scandal: his teacher knowingly paid murderers for bodies so that his medical students would have bodies to dissect. Chiver is haunted by the memory of one woman, also a prostitute, who he rejected in life and dissected after death. Chiver, who is engaged to a naïve young women, is fascinated by Gustine, feels lust towards her, but harbors even more avarice towards her baby, whom he wants to raise and study. He blunders through Sunderland, trying to correct the fallen disarray of his life, only to have it crumble completely.
The other characters, although playing lesser parts in the unfolding drama, are well-drawn and evocative. This is particularly true of the “Eye,” the one-eyed mute woman whose job is to follow Gustine to make sure the dress – not the woman herself, mind you – is safe for its owner. Even though Gustine hates the Eye and her vigilance, eventually the two find a common interest. Throughout the book the omnipresent narrator is yet another character; an opinionated, interested observer whose identity is revealed towards the end of the book.
Although it might seem as if The Dress Lodger is too full of human frailty and misery to bear, Holman takes a refreshingly honest view that is not Dickensian in depicting life’s misery nor lauding its small triumphs as anything but normal happenstance. Her conscious nod towards novelistic pathos is in the character of the Student of Life (her capitals), who meets Gustine and imagines he knows her story, to which he wishes to give a voice. The tale he spins about her is a melodramatic one that is a far cry from Gustine’s reality. “First of all,” she retorts, “I am not ashamed of anything other than sitting here listening to you. And secondly, I work for a living. I work all day in the mud and I work all night on the streets. I do not need a voice.”
That matter-of-fact view on life is echoed throughout the The Dress Lodger, which portrays a grim time with gorgeous writing and delightful novelistic flights of fancy. Holman’s research is spectacular, and I cannot wait to glom her other two books, one set in the 15th century (a pilgrimage from Germany to Mount Sinai) and the other, which takes place in 7th century Korea.