Originally published: May 2019 (first published Sep 2018)
Author: Laura Purcell
Published by: Raven Books
Genre: Gothic mystery
Length: 392 pages
Reading dates: 20-26 September 2019
The Corset was our September book pick for the Shoreham Book Club and generally it was well received by our members – a couple didn’t get on with it but I absolutely adored it. This is my first book by Laura Purcell and I will be going on to read her others without a doubt!
Dorothea Truelove is a 25 year old lady – wealthy and beautiful. Her father is keen to marry her off to a man who is suitable to a woman of her class, but Dorothea is much more interested in the women prisoners of Oakgate Prison and in furthering her study of phrenology: a theory which claims to be able to determine character, personality traits, and criminality on the basis of the shape of the head.
When Ruth Butterham arrives at Oakgate she immediately becomes of interest to Dorothea. Ruth is a self confessed murderess, just a teenager who has had a terrible life, she has admitted to killing her mistress and is heading to the gallows. Ruth is a talented seamstress, who in her short life started by helping her mother with her sewing orders before being sent to work at Metyard’s an upmarket dressmakers where she used to sew in terrible conditions, under Mrs Metyard and her daughter Kate who worked the girls hard and did not forgive mistakes.
“But instead I shared the fate of all girls who are poor of pocket: I was tied to my work, like a needle tethered by thread.”
Told in alternating chapters in Dorothea’s and Ruth’s voices, as Ruth tells her story to Dorothea, I must admit, I preferred Ruth’s chapters as she interested me more as a character. Dorothea was written well as a typical lady of her time and I liked how she was flouting convention – not marrying but being more interested in her charitable work and her study of phrenology. But Ruth’s life and story just interested me more.
This is a quite a gory book in places – there is a birth scene quite early on that was truly horrific and other events that made me cringe. I found the social history interesting – set in Victorian times where life was hard for the majority of people. The debtors prison for example was horrific – a squalid place where you were sent if you had unpaid debts but also a place that most people had no hope of getting out of.
What was great about this book, was the division and debate it caused for our book club discussion. We all had different ideas about the last few pages of the book. Purcell is skilled in making different readers believe different things and while I was sure of what I thought had happened, other members believed something else entirely! Were events supernatural or were they able to be explained? I appreciate that seems vague but I don’t want to give too much of the plot away (but if you’ve read it and want to chat, by all means get in touch.)
A gothic, spooky book, unlike anything I have ever read before, I really enjoyed this especially how the author left certain plot points open to interpretation. I look forward to discovering more of Purcell’s writing in the future!
About the author:
Laura Purcell is a former bookseller and lives in Colchester with her husband and pet guinea pigs.
Her first novel for Raven Books The Silent Companions won the WHSmith Thumping Good Read Award 2018 and featured in both the Zoe Ball and Radio 2 Book Clubs. Other Gothic novels include The Corset, Bone China and The Shape of Darkness (2020).
Laura’s historical fiction about the Hanoverian monarchs, Queen of Bedlam and Mistress of the Court was published by Myrmidon.