The Corset by Laura Purcell (Raven Books, Bloomsbury)
Everyone else appears to be more organised than I am and has had their reviews out already, but better late than never!
The Corset recounts the stories of two women, Dorothea Truelove and Ruth Butterham. The story is set in Oakgate, a town large enough for a new prison and a debtors jail (but small enough that they have to wait for the assizes to come round for Ruth’s court case to happen) and with a brilliant supporting cast of mid 19th Century folk from both the upper and lower classes. All of life is here, and it’s generally not as pleasant as the turns Dorothea likes to take around the botanical gardens.
Genteel Dorothea is a young lady with an interest in both prison reform and phrenology; her prison visits provide her with plenty of candidates for having their bumps read; her life is not without misfortune but she is comfortably off, certainly more so that many of the characters we encounter as Laura Purcell takes us further into Ruth’s world. Ruth’s life, as she recounts it to both the reader and Dorothea over the course of the book, has been one of poverty and abuse.
Like many of her class at the time, Ruth’s short life has never been happy. The daughter of an impoverished artist (a drinker) and a seamstress, Ruth is bullied at the school her parents can barely afford to send her to (anyone who’s ever been on the receiving end will recognise the fury and shame Ruth at the hands of the nasty girls, her tormentors). Ruth returns home after being attacked one last time, and with her cheap corset destroyed, to find her pregnant mother, Jemima, struggling to complete her piecework – “the Metyard work”.
It is in helping to make a pair of wedding gloves that Ruth begins to believe there is something uncanny about her abilities with the needle, the pattern appears without effort, she is in a trance like state, she clearly has talent. Ruth steals scraps to make a new corset for herself, sewing at night in secret. When she puts the corset on she finds she cannot take it off again. Yet more strange things happen in connection with Ruth’s sewing, and she is convinced she has power – through her needle – to affect the lives of those she sews for.
Dorothea is not without troubles of her own. Her mother died of a ‘wasting disease’ when she was seven, leaving her on the care of her father, who tolerates her social works, but is very much trying to marry her off to someone suitable (he isn’t aware she’s fallen for a common police constable, who she considers running off with throughout the book). Dorothea studies phrenology in memory of her mother, in fact she’s quite obsessed by it – as convinced that bumps in the skull affect a person’s actions and personality as Ruth is about her influence with a needle and thread.
We are lead into each of our protagonists inner lives via the double first person narrative – I found both Ruth and Dorothea compelling characters, and Dorothea occasionally a little annoying!Both these women have been trapped all their lives. Dorothea, for all her money and comfort, is unhappy and longs for her freedom. Just as her pet canary Wilkie is allowed out of his cage but cannot fly away, Dorothea can visit the prison and indulge in her ‘scientific’ research, but she is always accompanied, always overseen, be that by her moody maid Tilda, the matron or her father.
Poor Ruth, we find out, has been to hell and not quite back. ‘Apprenticed’ by her indebted mother to the absolutely dreadful Mrs Metyard, Ruth becomes little more than another slave in the Metyard’s dressmaking business, an organisation with abuse at its heart. The team of apprentices Ruth joins are all Foundling children; Miriam (‘the blackamoor’) becomes Ruth’s only friend in this terrible place.
Physical punishment and exploitation are the norm at the Metyards and this novel goes to very dark places; madness, murder and destitution to name but a few. I felt Ruth’s despair at her fellow captives – none of them lift a finger to help any of the others – particularly Miriam who is already ‘other’, being black and even more exploited than the rest of them. But the point I think is that these children (none of them are older than fifteen) are terrified and institutionalised. The only light in Ruth’s life comes from Billy Rooker – blue-eyed, cheerful and kind to her – a former apprentice at Metyards who managed to get away via adoption to the draper supplying fabric to the shop. But why he is engaged to Mrs Metyard’s waspish daughter Kate is a mystery to Ruth .
This novel is not a relentless expose of the terrible lives of the Victorian poor, which Purcell writes very well; there are passages in here which I found very upsetting to read and it can’t have been easy to write them. The Metyards and their household are a creation worthy of Dickens, their world is vividly drawn – exploitation and violence keeps business going – the fine ladies they supply either don’t know, or don’t care, what goes on in attic and basement (and is this really any different to the issues around clothing manufacture today).
At its heart the Corset is it at heart a mystery story. Or more accurately a number of mystery stories – is Ruth telling the truth? Dorothea begins to wonder, or is she deliberately lying about events. Is her own phronology work worthwhile, and is all as it seems in Dorothea’s own seemingly fairly settled life. All this is stitched together and deftly tied off by Purcell at the end.
The Corset is published by Raven Books, available now. Thanks to Raven Books/Bloomsbury for providing a review copy via NetGalley.