Bone China by Laura Purcell

Edition Published: 2 April 2020, First Published: 19 September 2019
Language book read in: English

Vel’s Perspective

For a third year in a row, we have trusted ourselves to read and review a Laura Purcell novel, this year it is Bone China. There are many similarities between the novels – the main characters are all women, usually of some fortune; further, the books are set in the same era, there is a mystery to be uncovered and have a good dose of the inexplicable and the supernatural thrown into the mix. It is difficult to write about one of Purcell’s fiction books, without comparing it to the previous ones, as they are all under the same genre, yet the particulars of both plot and main characters differ greatly, thus providing a gripping read.

The Main Heroine

Whilst it took me some time for me to get into The Silent Companions, and The Corset had its ups and downs for me, Bone China got me on the side of the main heroine in an instant. The story begins with the main character, Hester Why, on the run. From who we find out soon enough, but as to finding out why we are made to wait for a fair few pages (I did appreciate the question in the heroine’s surname greatly). Hester is stuck on a coach, hands shaking, and not just from the cold, before spurring into motion when a fellow passenger falls from the top row of the overcrowded coach with more than a broken leg. A small secret of Hester’s is out – her mercy of giving the victim some of the gin she keeps in her bag marks her as someone with vices as strong as her virtues.

Throughout her new position as a nurse to an eldering Miss Pinecroft, Hester hides her alcohol addiction and when she runs out of gin, substitutes with laundum – half opium, half alcohol. It is hard to escape her own guilty conscience, and the sometimes extreme beliefs of the other staff members push her to sip more than occasionally of whatever drink she has at hand.
Thus, on a solid diet of opiates and folklore, Hester watches another mistress’s health decline, until the fateful night of a strong storm where things finally fall into place, and she makes an impulsive decision which rids her of her addiction and guilt.

The Setting

Purcell has comfortably established her writing in the Victorian and Edwardian eras, and her research is once again excellent, which is reflected in both the level of detail she includes on garments, modes of transport, societal structure and interactions, and ailments. Anyone who has read her other novels or our reviews of them knows that ailments play a pivotal role in a Purcell novel. In Bone China both physical and mental illnesses abound, and whilst modern medicine still has a lot to learn about, especially when it comes to the mind, emotions and psyche, Victorian remedies and beliefs continue to shock me into being grateful I live in the modern era.

The story jumps between three time sets, the now of Hester Why working in Morvoren house, looking after the mostly paralysed Miss Pinecroft as her nurse, the past of Hester, where we learn of what caused her to be on the run, and finally Miss Pinecroft’s own past, where all the seemingly nonsensical superstitious of the staff members find their root and start to make sense. The now and the past jump from one to the other, and roll simultaneously, as only through resolving the mysteries of the past can the present plights find an answer.

Excluding the flashbacks, the story takes barely a month, from Hester’s first steps in Morvoren House, to us getting to the bottom of the years kept secret on a stormy winter night.

Conclusion

Bone China was an intriguing novel, which I read with delight. Ultimately, it boiled down to two things for me: firstly – the lack of genuine personal connection between characters, for example Hester and her previous mistresses, as well as Hester and her family. She craves attention, wants to be needed, wanted, respected – as a professional and as a friend, but society at the time hardly allows for such notions. Secondly, Miss Pinecroft is presented with an option – to choose the unbelievable and hope, or to accept a terrible reality. I spent a fair bit of time, pondering what my decision would be in her stead.

Purcell has become a go-to author when friends ask me for recommendations. She has an easy, polished style, which is a joy to read. More frequently than ever, I wish to withdraw from my surroundings and submerge myself in a world still full of wonder and mystery, where I can untangle some intrigue over a cup of tea, and Bone China fulfilled that desire in just the right way. And, yes, I have preordered Purcell’s upcoming novel, The Shape of Darkness.

A blue-and-white Chinese tea set.

Nel’s Perspective

Hey, it’s another one of Purcell’s mysteries! We started following Bone China’s release date shortly after finishing The Corset. We really wanted to include a review of the book despite this year being devoted to Bulgarian authors. As a result, 2020’s reading list has been purposefully sprinkled with a dash of gothic stories just so we can have the occasional break from the main theme and soothe our souls with a genre both Vel and I love very dearly.

Usually when someone mentions porcelain, my mind immediately pictures the famous blue-and-white Ming dynasty ceramics. That’s why when I got a first glance at the book cover, I found the idea of using an inverted variant of the blue-and-white colour scheme brilliant. It goes without saying the cover is beautifully done, hinting at what the book is about without giving away much of its contents. But what mystery lies within its pages? Let’s find out.

Who is Why

Ah, starting an answer with a question, right? Nothing more annoying than that, but having the question “why” at the back of your mind, while reading will be helpful because the story keeps you on your toes at all times. (This also resulted in me devouring the whole book in two days.)

Bone China’s protagonist, Hester Why (or Esther Stevens as you will learn later), is a nurse/lady’s maid on the run. She seems haunted and determined to escape the clutches of a grave crime committed by Hester herself. The vast landscapes are grey and dreary, the cold weather only adds to the emptiness Hester feels inside. Purcell does a great job in harmonising the “feel” of the character’s surroundings with their private thoughts.

The narrative, as Vel mentioned, once again follows Purcell’s established pattern of writing – different timelines/accounts. This allows for the story of the elder Miss Pinecroft to shine light on some of the events in the book, as well as the reason for the way the tale unfolds. Regardless of the timeline, each of the characters is engulfed by his or her inner (sometimes fantasy) world and personal vices. The whole setting reminds me of the game pinball: a hollow space occupied by the ghosts of the characters’ personal drama, who on occasion collide with each other and further complications arise.

Purcell’s writing style has definitely helped her create a very intriguing mystery. However, I feel that it has also had a negative effect on the story itself, as well as the ending of the book.

On the Fence

This is where I think my opinion of Bone China will be slightly different from Vel’s. I actually found myself more inclined to sympathise with Miss Pinecroft rather than the main character.

Hester is a very impulsive person, she often acts on the spur of the moment, led by her obsessive feelings. Her need for love, affection and attention is not always directed at the right person. Sometimes this causes her to make questionable choices. I can understand this to a degree, but she doesn’t seem to learn from her past mistakes. Surely someone who has ended up in a situation, where one’s identity has to be disguised in order to flee from crimes punishable by law, will act with more caution in the future?

I know, I know. Humans are flawed creatures and people with impulse control issues are bound to slip once or twice. Yet, there is no progression in Hester’s character after a few more mistakes. Purcell has managed to convey her helplessness and desperation perfectly, but I still feel something was missing from the story.

This leads me to my next point – I felt the ending a bit rushed and the introduction of a deus ex machina, while logically fitting with the rest of the story, a very anticlimactic resolution to a great mystery.

Finally, this is more of a personal wish rather than something being wrong with Bone China itself – I wanted to know more about some of the characters, specifically Creeda. She has been a lifelong servant of Miss Pinecroft. She lives in a world of her own, plagued by people-stealing fairies and changelings. Eventually, we learn of the unfortunate events, which have caused Creeda to act the way she does.

As Vel mentioned, diseases play a major role in Purcell’s books. In Bone China’s case, it’s phthisis or now known as pulmonary tuberculosis. And I believe the author has included another rather common 18th century disease, also incurable at the time, which provides an explanation of Creeda’s character – syphilis. This is only a speculation on my part, of course, but some of her mannerisms and beliefs, and her insistence on the supernatural account for what happened to her when she was young can be explained if Creeda was someone suffering from an untreated syphilis. A study by Lucas Lonardoni Crozatti et al. suggests syphilitic patients can sometimes manifest signs of auditory and visual hallucinations. (I must include a trigger warning due to some of the descriptions in the patient’s case study.)

Given that in the 18th century Londoners were prone to self-medicating when it came to sexually transmitted diseases; syphilis being “The Great Pretender” because most of its symptoms mimic a myriad of other diseases, and Creeda’s doctor (Dr Ernest Pinecroft, Miss Pinecroft’s father) being obsessed with treating his consumptives rather than Creeda, it’s no wonder her character developed the way it did.

Final Thoughts

Bone China is a good gothic mystery to escape real life for a few hours. However, I think The Corset remains my favourite so far. It has more elements to my liking, including a murder mystery. Nevertheless, my personal opinion shouldn’t discourage you from reading Bone China because it is a good book in its own right. I just can’t help comparing it to some of the other books authored by Purcell.

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