Edition Published: May 2nd 2019, First Published: September 20th 2018
Language book read in: English
Vel made me happy this summer, not only by visiting me, but also by bringing books along with her. 🖤
This was very fortunate, because our plan for the year included Dacre Stoker’s Dracul and we were unable to get the book on time to write a proper review. However, I think one of the gems Vel brought, Laura Purcell’s The Corset, is the perfect Gothic substitute. Now I hope Dracul will be as interesting when the time comes to read it.
The beautiful cover immediately grabbed my attention once Vel left the stack of books on my kitchen table. We had only a few days to see each other, but she couldn’t let go of the book until she read the last page. By this point I was very intrigued and I couldn’t wait for my turn to read it. So what was so captivating about The Corset?
As you may remember, a while ago we reviewed The Silent Companions, also authored by Purcell. Since I loved her previous novel, I couldn’t wait to get my hands on The Corset and see if it would have the same effect on me as The Silent Companions did. Again, the short answer would be a resounding yes!
The Corset follows the stories of Ruth Butterham and Dorothea Truelove. One is a condemned murderer, an outcast and a brilliant seamstress, the other is an aristocrat, whose involvement in the study of phrenology is deemed inappropriate, especially for a young lady of a marriageable age. Following her mother’s teachings, Dorothea becomes one of the major donors for the construction of a prison, where those awaiting their trial or simply serving their sentence would be treated more humanely and given a chance to work for a pittance. One of those prisoners is Ruth, who was sentenced to death for the murder of her mistress. Dorothea quickly becomes fascinated by Ruth and starts studying her family history and her cranium in order to prove her theory that head bumps can tell one’s predisposition towards certain behaviours.
Why I Couldn’t Stop Reading
The premise of the book is simple, yet interesting enough to lure you in and not let you go. As you read, you learn about the lives of two young women, who have vastly different childhoods and their futures do not seem to get any brighter as the story goes on. The narrative is made to resemble Dorothea’s meticulous note-taking on Ruth’s character and progress on one side, as well as Ruth’s confessions on the other. So everything is told from a first-person perspective, making it feel more intimate by drawing you a little closer to someone’s private life and struggles.
I didn’t expect some of the twists and turns along the way. Sure, right from the start you have a clear case: there’s the assassin, the victim and….. no mention of the murder weapon, only Ruth’s confession of killing her mistress with her sewing skills. How can a corset be deadly?
And then it begins: at first you are certain Ruth is guilty, then you start sympathising with her until you are no longer certain whether she had committed the crime or not. Dorothea’s story also takes a relatively unexpected turn. It is relative, because you don’t know where her future is headed until the very last few chapters.
Of course, almost all of the plot twists could be deduced, but this is not where The Corset’s beauty lies. The pace, the mystery and intrigue make the story so compelling, you don’t have the time or the will to stop reading and think about the whys and the whos.
Dorothea wants to be considered on par with the men of her social strata, especially her father. She doesn’t want anyone else choosing her partner in life, deciding what she should wear, or have as a hobby. It sounds familiar, doesn’t it? Reminiscent of The Silent Companions, Purcell chooses to have female main characters. One of which is trying to fight for her right to be financially and socially independent, while the other is also trying to survive all the challenges thrown at her. The only difference is Ruth’s attempts do not go beyond her basic understanding of the world and the social framework limiting her.
Another progressive trait, found both in The Corset‘s Dorothea and the psychiatrist character in The Silent Companion, is the idea of treating the impoverished, sick and unlucky ones humanely. Dorothea is heavily influenced by her mother’s belief in treating people with love and provide help where it’s needed. Similarly, the psychiatrist acts against the advice of his colleagues and does not use the “modern” method of electrocuting his patients.
Despite it not being a very prominent topic in the book, Purcell also sheds light on how people with darker skin were treated by others in Victorian times. Mim, Ruth’s friend and a servant girl for the Metyards, is given the hardest tasks in the house and later handled like livestock when she tries to run away. Afterwards we only get bits and pieces until we finally learn the full extent of torture inflicted upon all of the Metyards’ servants.
If you love Victorian mysteries, murder trials and deadly corsets, then I would definitely recommend reading The Corset! I think Laura Purcell did a great job with this one and I already can’t wait to get my hands on her newest book, Bone China.
After reading The Silent Companions by Laura Purcell last year, I was on the lookout for her newest novel, The Corset. Purcell was one author I picked up by chance, due to a combination of the cover art, female author, and new release, and if you have read our review of her previous book, you know I thoroughly enjoyed it. Her second novel was a long time in the coming, especially as I am not keen on spending the extra monies on hardcover books – they end up bulkier and harder to handle, impossible to transport anywhere and whilst they look incredible on a bookshelf next to other hardback issues, I find paperbacks now often share the hardback’s artwork making them just as appealing to me. So I waited.
Was the Wait Rewarded?
In a word, yes. Though I did have some hiccups along the way, once I got past the first 50-80 pages, I kept it up at a steady pace and did end up staying late one night just to finish the book. The Corset makes for a well rounded mystery with elements of the bizarre and inexplicable, whilst still being firmly rooted in a well researched Victorian setting. I particularly enjoyed the variety of strong characters, both male and female – each with their quirks and mannerisms, with both aspirations and flaws. Purcell’s writing has, if anything, improved since her first novel and delivered a steady unfolding of the plot’s twists and turns, with a bang right at the last few lines, which I reckon will become a staple of Purcell’s style.
Whilst it did take me some pages to get into it, I enjoyed the intermingled themes of exploration of mental illness, the power of determination and self belief, as well as the differences in social classes at the time. Dorothea, a daughter of a wealthy family, seeks to study the skulls of female criminals in a local prison. She believes her soul will only gain salvation if she accomplishes a list of good deeds, one of them being to care for those less privileged than her. But that’s not to say her life is without strife – with her mother, who was her biggest supporter, passing away, a new woman circling round her father, raising suspicions around her mother’s death, and the increasing pressure to marry and birth, and her refusal to do so (something I can completely relate to), make her into a character with a lot of depth. Ruth comes from the opposite end of society – her family is rattled by poverty, when her father’s work dries off. Her mother cannot keep up on her sewing to feed them alone, so when she gets pregnant with Ruth’s sister, Ruth has to stop school, where she is bullied for her “lower” birth, and help her mother with the sewing work – something she discovers she has a gift for, albeit with an unusual side effect. Both meet a series of other characters, whose stories become tangled in a big knot, which Purcell masterfully keeps tied right till the very end.
The Unfair Comparison
If the above has left you with the impression I loved The Corset, that’s because I did. But not as much as The Silent Companions. It’s unfair, I know. To compare two novels an author has published as closely and frequently as I am in my own mind is harsh criticism. And yet, when I think of The Corset, I inevitably run parallels with Purcell’s first novel. I believe I am not without reason to do so either. Both stories are set in a similar time frame and have as a main character a woman in her prime from higher society, who ends up in a close interaction with another woman, who may have more going on to them than physics would strictly allow. In both novels Purcell sets a slower, almost crawling pace initially, which ramps up as the plot thickens. Whilst the two novels have a lot more setting them apart, I think I loved The Silent Companions a lot more because The Corset is too similar in style, characters and setting, and came second.
Ultimately, if you are in the mood for a good mystery, The Corset is not to be missed! But I am setting the bar for Purcell’s third novel much higher – she is an excellent writer, and I would hate to see her becoming a one trick pony. I would like her next work to be equally gripping, yet different – perhaps in the setting, perhaps in the pace, or at least the main cast of characters she chooses. And who knows, if it comes out of print on paperback over next year, I am certain Nelly and I will enjoy reviewing Purcell’s work for the third year in a row with her upcoming book Bone China.
What mystery novel would you recommend?