I loved The Silent Companions by Laura Purcell, which I found to be delightfully creepy, and I was excited to read Bone China the moment I heard about it.
Consumption has ravaged Louise Pinecroft’s family, leaving her and her father alone and heartbroken.
But Dr Pinecroft has plans for a revolutionary experiment: convinced that sea air will prove to be the cure his wife and children needed; he arranges to house a group of prisoners suffering from the same disease in the cliffs beneath his new Cornish home.
Forty years later, Hester Why arrives at Morvoren House to take up a position as nurse to the now partially paralysed and almost entirely mute Miss Pinecroft. Hester has fled to Cornwall to try and escape her past, but surrounded by superstitious staff enacting bizarre rituals, she soon discovers that her new home may be just as dangerous as her last.
The novel is split into seven sections, each of which brings something a little different to the narrative. The first section shows Hester Why arriving at Morvoren House, and the reader quickly learns that Hester Why is an assumed name although the reasons for this subterfuge aren’t immediately obvious. What is clear is that she is running away from something, and the reader gets an insight into this in the second section which deals with Hester’s previous employment. The reader also sees Morvoren House through the eyes of Louise Pinecroft as a young woman when she and her father, heartbroken by the tragedy that has befallen their family, first arrive at the property. I liked each of the story lines, but I did find the sections dealing with potential treatments for tuberculosis particularly interesting, and even more so after reading the author’s note that the experiments run by Louise and her father were inspired by true events.
I enjoyed reading about the characters in the novel, although there were some that I liked more than others. The young Louise Pinecroft was my personal favourite. Taught by her father from a young age, she would have made a great doctor were it not for society’s views about a woman’s role in life. I felt her frustration at the circumstances, and admired her determination to make a difference despite these restrictions. She assists her father where she can, and that brings her some measure of satisfaction, despite the circumstances. The Louise that Hester meets is a very different character, and it was saddening to read of her present circumstances in contrast to her youthful exuberance.
Hester is also a plucky individual, although I wasn’t entirely sure what to make of her at times. She has some skills in nursing, which help her to secure the role at Morvoren House, but which also enables her to tap into her mistress’s laudanum supplies when she runs out of gin. Part of my ambivalence towards Hester’s character is due to her being largely to blame for her present circumstances, and while I read her story with interest, I felt little sympathy for her. I did feel that there was an element to Hester’s character that was mentioned but then not explored or explained in full, and I did find this a little frustrating. It would have been interesting to see this facet of Hester’s character explored in more detail once it was raised, although it does serve a purpose.
I love novels that explore elements of folklore, and Cornwall abounds with such material. These parts of the story were very well handled, and I enjoyed the contrasting views of those who keep the old ways and the scepticism of those who consider themselves to be more worldly and above such beliefs. The juxtaposition of science and folklore works brilliantly, particularly as the Pinecrofts begin their experiments and face the consternation of their maid who goes to some extraordinary lengths to keep the “little people” happy. This causes Hester some frustration as she begins to understand more about these beliefs. It’s hard to know until much later in the novel how much significance to assign to those elements, and I thought that this was cleverly done.
Bone China is another fantastic Gothic novel from Laura Purcell, and while it didn’t chill me in quite the same way as The Silent Companions, it’s an enjoyable read and one that I think Purcell’s fans will enjoy.