The Poison Thread
Please note that this review was originally published in October 2018 upon the UK publication of this novel. The book’s original title is The Corset.
Laura Purcell first came to my attention as the author of a couple of very fine pieces of historical fiction, and earlier this year, I awarded her fabulous, spooky supernatural/gothic mystery The Silent Companions DIK status and gushed about it to everyone who crossed my path! I’ve been waiting eagerly to read her next novel The Corset, another mystery set in Victorian England, this time, featuring two very different women who are brought together in the gloomy surroundings of a London prison.
Dorothea Truelove is pragmatic, intelligent and privileged. She is heiress to a considerable sum, but continually resists her father’s attempts to find her an eligible husband, preferring instead to concentrate on her scientific interests and the young, most definitely ineligible policeman with whom she is in love. Dorothea has become fascinated by phrenology – a pseudoscience that posited that a person’s character could be determined by the measurements of their skull and that personality, thoughts and emotions were located in certain specific regions of the brain – and is furthering her knowledge by visiting female inmates at Oakwood Gate Prison. She is keen to meet the latest new arrival, a sixteen-year-old girl called Ruth Butterham who has confessed to the murder of her employer and several other people, and to study the size and shape of her skill, believing her research could help “devise a system to detect, scientifically, without a doubt, all evil propensities in the young” and thereby a way of preventing them from becoming criminals.
Ruth Butterham couldn’t be more different to Dorothea. A talented seamstress, Ruth’s life has been blighted by tragedy, poverty and horror; when her father commits suicide, she and her sick mother are forced to seek help from Mrs. Metyard, a popular modiste for whom Ruth’s mother often does piece-work. In desperation, Ruth’s mother more or less sells Ruth to Mrs. Metyard, believing that a roof over her head and regular meals will be better for Ruth than anything she can provide, which is why, aged just twelve, Ruth finds herself subjected to abuse and exploitation alongside four other girls, all of them terribly mistreated, half-starved and regularly beaten.
The story is told from both Dorothea’s and Ruth’s points of view, the latter in the form of the tale she is telling Dorothea and her thoughts and feelings upon it. Ruth tells how she came to believe that she had the ability to impart her feelings through her needle and into her work, and how she has been able to cause harm to those who harmed her by weaving her hatred and anger into her sewing. Dorothea is at first fascinated and excited at the prospect of being able to examine the head shape and size of a murderess, but soon becomes annoyed and frustrated; what she is hearing from Ruth’s lips and learning from her skull shape and measurements don’t match up at all, because her centres of morality and memory are too well developed for someone who is clearly telling so many lies.
It’s perhaps not surprising that Dorothea’s narrative is somewhat less engrossing than Ruth’s. She doesn’t have to worry about where her next meal is coming from, or whether dropping this plate or that candle will result in a vicious beating (which happens in Ruth’s story); her problems are trivial by comparison, as she fumes about the fact that her father is planning to marry a woman she dislikes intensely, and over his attempts to force her into marriage. That said, the parallels the author draws between the women in relation to how little control either has over their lives is relevant and nicely done, showing clearly that gender was a great leveller, still the biggest obstacle to a woman having choices, no matter her social or financial status. The corset is certainly an interesting metaphor, applied just as well to the garments that restricted women’s movement as to the rigid conventions that restricted their behaviour and opportunities.
As is the case with the other books I’ve read by Laura Purcell, The Corset is beautifully written, and her research has clearly been impeccable. The descriptions of what Ruth goes through – the poverty, the despair, the cruelty – have a visceral impact and make Ruth an easy figure to sympathise with, but they were also a little too gory at times for my taste, and there were elements of unnecessary repetition that didn’t enhance or further the story. And here I have a confession to make; the reveal that came around the half-way point was so daft that it actually made me want to snort with laughter rather than hide behind the sofa.
I find I can’t write about The Corset without reference to Ms. Purcell’s previous novel, The Silent Companions, which is one of the best modern gothic novels I’ve read. Deeply atmospheric and seriously creepy, it worked so well because there was genuine doubt as to what was really going on; was the heroine subject to supernatural forces or mere human evil? Whatever the answer arrived at by the reader, both options were equally terrifying. In this novel, however, there is no real horror (unless you count the account of the birth of Ruth’s sister, or the gloopy slime of the decaying fish one of the other girls put into Ruth’s work-basket), or sense of the unexpected. I was never really convinced by Ruth’s belief that she could somehow sew malevolence into the garments she made and embroidered, which always seemed to me to be something latched on to by a girl so traumatised by loss and despair that she would believe anything if it meant she was able to exercise even the smallest amount of control over her circumstances.
The characterisation of both leads is extremely strong, Ruth’s naïve, trusting nature tempered by an incredible resilience and endurance while Dorothea, ostensibly a good young woman with a penchant for doing good works, turns out to be something of a self-righteous prig. Ms. Purcell interweaves their narratives skilfully and in such a way as to give the reader time to reflect upon their reliability, and the final chapters and slowly evolving revenge plot are incredibly well done; for my money, the final twenty percent of the novel is easily worth the price of admission alone. But for all the great things the book has going for it, I wasn’t as drawn into it as I’d hoped to be, which I freely admit may be because I had such high expectations and had hoped for more of what I found in the author’s previous novel.
The Corset nonetheless earns a solid recommendation courtesy of its superb writing, strong characterisation and intriguing storylines. The novel’s flaws don’t outweigh its strengths by any means, and anyone looking for a gritty, well-written and well-researched gothic mystery could do worse than give it a try.