Laura Purcell: The Corset
Published By: Raven Books
Buy It: here
What The Blurb Says:
Is prisoner Ruth Butterham mad or a murderer? Victim or villain?
Dorothea and Ruth.
Prison visitor and prisoner. Powerful and powerless.
Dorothea Truelove is young, wealthy and beautiful. Ruth Butterham is young, poor and awaiting trial for murder.
When Dorothea’s charitable work leads her to Oakgate Prison, she is delighted with the chance to explore her fascination with phrenology and test her hypothesis that the shape of a person’s skull can cast a light on their darkest crimes. But when she meets teenage seamstress Ruth, she is faced with another theory: that it is possible to kill with a needle and thread. For Ruth attributes her crimes to a supernatural power inherent in her stitches.
The story Ruth has to tell of her deadly creations – of bitterness and betrayal, of death and dresses – will shake Dorothea’s belief in rationality, and the power of redemption.
Can Ruth be trusted? Is she mad, or a murderer?
What I Say:
If you know me at all, you will remember how much I loved Laura’s previous novel The Silent Companions (my blog post about how wonderful it is here ). You can imagine how much I was looking forward to reading The Corset. After trying every way possible to get hold of a copy for review, the wonderful Pigeonhole HQ came to the rescue!
The Pigeonhole is an app which you sign up to for free, and they offer you the chance to read books via a Stave (a small portion of the novel) every day. It’s a way of reading that’s growing in popularity, and I love it! Just to be clear, I am in no way affiliated with or paid by The Pigeonhole, it’s just a unique and brilliant way to access books – for free!
The Corset is set in the Victorian Era, and tells the story of Ruth Butterham and Dorothea Truelove. From the very start, the novel pulls the reader right into the murky, oppressive and unrelenting atmosphere of the city.
The Victorian life is very much a world of two halves – one of social mobility, wealth and having a future, the other is of people being treated no better than animals, where children are traded as commodities and are destined for a life of poverty and hopelessness.
Dorothea is a young lady, who is settled in a social class where money talks and she has plenty of it. As a young woman of means, she is not interested by the fashion and gossip of the time, instead she is fascinated by the science of phrenology, which claims that by studying the different lumps and bumps on a person’s skull, that you can determine the different facets of their personality. Dorothea wants to understand how much of an impact this can have on a person’s propensity to kill, and her ability to give monetary donations to Oakgate prison, gives her the exclusive access to inmates to conduct her research. Her mother has passed away and Dorothea’s father is attempting to bring her up to be the young woman he wishes her to be, and is dismayed by her interests and lack of willingness to marry.
She is a fiercely independent and dynamic character, who understands what is expected of her – to marry well, produce children and be the dutiful wife and mother. What is refreshing about Dorothea is that she does not want to marry for money – she wants to marry on her own terms – if at all. She does not want her life determined by what is expected – she wants her life to be what she wants, something she has to suppress and keep hidden from everyone else for fear of angering her distant and somewhat intimidating father.
Ruth Butterham is a sixteen year old seamstress, who has been accused of murder and is awaiting her fate in Oakgate Prison. Dorothea is immediately drawn to her and makes her almost a pet project. Ruth has had a far from easy childhood to this point, her mother has had to ‘sell’ her to an inhuman Seamstress called Mrs Metyard after Ruth’s father has died and she has no source of income, and Ruth has lost her younger sister too in a most tragic way.
Ruth is convinced that her instinctive skill as a seamstress means that she is able to imbue her needles with her emotions, that she has the power of life and death over her sewing clients. This inexplicable power has resulted in her being accused of the murder of Kate Metyard, Mrs Metyard’s daughter. As Dorothea spends more time in Ruth’s company, we learn about her life, the horrors she has seen, and the shocking realisation that Ruth is a complex young woman who may not be as wealthy or privileged as Dorothea, but is just as determined and unique.
In telling Ruth’s story, Laura not only builds up a complete picture of her, and allows us to witness the other side of the case, but also provides a brutal and shocking depiction of life in Victorian Britain. I learned more about the grim realities of life for those without money in reading this novel than I ever have before. Laura’s gritty and evocative telling of Ruth’s life are in stark contrast to the beautiful and grandiose descriptions of the fabric she works with but will never own, and the unfulfilling world that Dorothea inhabits.
As a reader, you find yourself pulled and pushed along with Ruth – she witnesses and is forced to participate in things which are jaw droppingly awful (and not for the faint hearted), but she also shows a gritty determination and resilience to ensure that she does what she has to do to survive, to get revenge on those who have wronged her or hurt the ones she loves. I felt all the way through the novel that along with the dense and eerie atmosphere, there was also a magical and mystical air, where things that seem impossible and out of the ordinary are able to thrive in this imposing and claustrophobic world.
The Corset moves enticingly towards its conclusion, with Dorothea wondering whether Ruth is really telling the truth or if she has been manipulated into believing her story. This is the skill that Laura has in the way she draws the reader in – we are as much in the dark as Dorothea, every revelation and every layer that is unfurled pushes and pulls us one way or the other. Surely the idea that you can hurt someone purely by the garment they are wearing is ridiculous..
It would be too simplistic to say that The Corset is purely a story of deciding whether Ruth Butterham is guilty or innocent. It is a novel which addresses so many issues that are just as relevant now as they were then. We learn about the place of women in society, poverty, social expectations and what love really means. The Corset is shocking, brutal, filled with an underlying tension that pulses through the pages and keeps you reading long into the night. It is a novel that deserves to be read and re-read and I ordered a copy the minute I knew it was coming out.
Laura Purcell is an astounding writer, and I cannot wait to see where she takes us next.
I loved it – it is for me, one of my books of the year and I can’t wait to read it all over again – now you need to get hold of a copy too so we can talk about it!
5 thoughts on “The Corset by Laura Purcell”
I’m confused by the end. Did Ruth intend to kill billy? If so where did she get the arsenic in prison? Was the golden needle Dorothea gave her laced with poison? Was Dorotheas dad trying to poison her or was Ruth poisoning her every time she went to prison? 🤔
I think that’s the thing about the novel. We are always unsure about the power that Ruth has, and how far it goes, which gives the novel a supernatural, gothic feel. I try not to discuss the plot so much on my posts, but am on twitter if you want to chat to me about it!
I’m not a reader of historical fiction but for some reason I did sign up for this one via The Pigeonhole and LOVED it, it even made my top 10 last year! Great review!
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Thank you, but Laura Purcell is a phenomenal writer and she makes it very easy to write blogs because there is so much to say!! X
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