Saturday, January 11, 2020


It's been quite a while since I indulged in a good old gothic novel, or in this case a good new gothic novel.

Originally titled The Corset for good reasons I'll get into later on in this post, Laura Purcell's The Poison Thread (also a good title) perfectly treads that fine line between a grounded fantasy/fabulist and a plain historical novel very, very carefully, preserving its ambiguities right up until its final lines. Does the novel's more obviously victimized heroine have supernatural powers or is it all just coincidence? Is the novel's other heroine really as obnoxious and entitled as she seems, or is she actually quite all right and as worthy of being rooted for as her counterpart? Who are the actual villains, here? Are there actual villains besides circumstances and the twin demons of capitalism and the class system?

I'll start with the more obviously sympathetic of the novel's two heroines, Ruth, born to a beautiful daughter of the landed gentry and a rather feckless artist. Ruth's mother, of course, disobeyed her family and married the artist and was punished with ostracism and poverty for it. As Ruth (portrayed in the audio version with wonderful prickliness by Jayne Entwhistle) begins the story, their little family is living shabbily on what little Ruth's mother can earn by sewing and embroidering in the gig economy of Victorian England - making beautiful things or parts of beautiful things for fashionable ladies who obeyed their parents to wear. She takes in work from a nearby shop from whom she has to purchase the raw materials, and then proceed on trust that the shop owner will buy back the finished work for a fair price. Tweenage Ruth has thus grown up around needlework and has started to show a talent for it herself that bodes somewhat better for the family's future... Until disaster strikes and Ma falls pregnant with a little sibling for Ruth. A little sibling nobody wants, least of all Ruth, who nonetheless grudgingly sets to work on making baby clothes and blankets while Ma languishes ill in bed and Pa smokes and drinks and paints badly. It is in her memories of this period that Ruth discovers what she comes firmly to believe is a terrible truth about herself: her negative emotions, whether they be resentment or fear or hatred or envy, seep through her needle into her sewing and can magically affect those who use or wear her work for the worse. Maybe even for the fatal.

Of course there is a mundane real world explanation for every death Ruth comes to blame herself for as her ever more reduced circumstances land her in a sadistically managed Victorian sweatshop. The fact that a lot of green pigment employed in fabric dying and wallpaper during this period was made with arsenic, for instance, is much more plausible an explanation for the untimely death of a young bride on whose mostly green trousseau Ruth was forced to work than actual stitch witchery on Ruth's part, and never mind said bride used to beat up on Ruth when they were schoolgirls together, and once ruined little Ruth's one and only little girl corset her mother had made for her. But the coincidences pile up and circumstances conspire to convince Ruth that she is basically a serial killer, right up until she blurts out what she believes is the truth to her secret crush just as his wife (who's lady's maid Ruth has become, and who is a villain-adjacent figure from both Ruth's and her crush's past) lies dying, and Ruth gets accused of murdering said wife and is in the local jail awaiting trial when our other heroine meets her.

Dorothea Truelove (eyeroll) is another daughter of the gentry possibly poised on the brink of following in Ruth's mother's footsteps (she is secretly engaged to a policeman who once recovered her pocketbook from a thief), but this is not her only peculiarity. Her late mother converted to Catholicism shortly before dying, and secretly led Dorothea to take up that faith herself, with an emphasis on the doing of good works, like visiting prisoners. Dorothea grows up to sit on the board of a local women's prison, where she struggles to make it a humane place where actual reform is possible - - and where she can indulge her passion for the newfangled science of phrenology. As voiced with almost exaggerated gentility by Elizabeth Knowelden, Dorothea spends a lot of the novel seeming almost impossible to like, self-righteous, deluded, interfering, patronizing, almost a caricature of the upper-class young lady of charity, whom one suspects of doing good works for show... Until one realizes she doesn't really have an audience for her Good Deeds, not even a phrenology professor to impress, as a lesser writer might have given her.

Moreover, her story is peculiarly related to Ruth's long before she takes up the accused murderess as her latest project. Again, a lesser writer might have given them a secret foe in common, an unsuspected family tie or some other such trope, but Laura Purcell is a more subtle storyteller; learning Ruth's story leads Dorothea to reflect on her own, and to realize that her own life has rather different threads running through it than her father and lady's maid have allowed her to see.

So this is a novel that both ticks all the gothic boxes while still remaining fresh and surprising. I spent the last third of it pretty sure I knew how it was going to end, but wound up surprised, if a trifle annoyed that the ending was more than a little abrupt and came a bit out of left field.

A motif within the text that I found especially striking concerns that garment for which the novel was originally named, the corset. A late 20th/early 21st century girl like me usually grows up thinking of these as terrible relics of the cruel past: confining, painful, sometimes dangerous, restricting the breath, compressing the organs, piercing the skin to permit fatal infections, etc. The idea of a little girl wearing one seems horrible and unnecessary, even if one recalls that the idea of children's clothes as anything other than merely smaller versions of adult clothing in every detail is actually pretty recent. I was therefore very much stricken by the realization that to this character, Ruth, a corset could have positive associations. Her original corset, destroyed by a bully, was something she treasured as made by her mother even before it got ruined, and the scene when Ruth's mother sees what's become of it and realizes why it happened is a powerful one that brings us right into the story of their family. Soon mother and daughter are concocting plans to repair and renew it. These plans run afoul of real life, of course, but later when Ruth has finished the task alone and put it on, only to find herself incapable of taking it off again and winding up more or less permanently encased in it through some significant life events, we find that she regards it as her secret armor, its "embrace" a source of comfort and strength as she endures the initial round of sweatshop torments.

Later, of course, corsets take on more negative connotations, but again they are not the conventional ones: corsets are the commercially sold product of Ruth's talents with a needle. Unleashed upon a world that has not treated her well. That is actually treating her even more badly than she knows, even before Dorothea shows up with her rosary and calipers.

I had already resolved that I'd include some more gothic fiction and even romance in this year's reading when a Twitter friend of mine, also named Kate/Katie (@outofmyplanet), mentioned she'd just read this and really enjoyed it. I'm grateful to her for sharing this and to Laura Purcell for helping me start off my new year right.

Now excuse me, I think I have some socks to darn. **

*For a bit of extra wildness, the villain - adjacent in this novel is also named Kate! 

*Or rather, take too my mother to darn, because my messed up hands haven't been able to manipulate a needle in a decade, which made this read a bit more poignant for me. I used to embroider a lot! 

No comments:

Post a Comment

Sorry about the CAPTCHA, guys, but without it I was getting 4-5 comment spams an hour.