Is prisoner Ruth Butterham mad or a murderer? Victim or villain?
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 finds herself drawn to Ruth, a teenage seamstress – and self-confessed murderess – who nurses a dark and uncanny secret. A secret that is leading her straight to the gallows. As Ruth reveals her disturbing past to Dorothea, the fates of these two women entwine, and with every revelation, a new layer of doubt is cast…
Can Ruth be trusted? Is she mad, or a murderer?
I thoroughly enjoyed The Silent Companions and Bone China, but I think that The Corset is my favourite of Laura Purcell’s novels! It’s a captivating tale of hardship, struggle, and revenge, and I was gripped throughout.
The Corset is told from the dual perspectives of Dorothea Truelove and Ruth Butterham. I loved the contrast in these two characters, who wouldn’t normally have crossed paths. Dorothea is a young society lady of 25 who, much to her father’s chagrin, is as yet unmarried. She is a strong-minded individual, and determined to live her life the way she wants to, including marrying someone she loves rather than a person of her father’s choosing, not that this stops him attempting to set her up with various eligible individuals who he considers a suitable match. Little does he know that she has fallen in love with a young police officer called David and wishes to marry him, even though he wouldn’t be seen as a suitable choice for her. I liked Dorothea for the most part, although I felt that she wanted to have her cake and eat it where David was concerned. She repeatedly puts off any talk of marriage as she tries to retain her social standing (and house and income) whilst still marrying the person of her choosing. This unwillingness to sacrifice did make me think less of her.
Dorothea undertakes charitable work, feeling that it’s her duty as a relatively privileged young woman. Her father disapproves, but it’s through her work at Oakgate Prison that she meets Ruth. I have to admit that I did question Dorothea’s motives here. While ostensibly there to talk to the women, she also uses these opportunities to pursue her own interest in phrenology, measuring the heads of the inmates in order to verify her own theories. In particular, she believes that those who will cause harm could be identified before they act and could therefore be steered along a different path. I loved this exploration of phrenology, the concept of which may well have been believed at the time, even though it’s now considered a pseudoscience. It adds an interesting element to the plot, and again demonstrates Dorothea’s independent and rebellious nature through her pursuit of knowledge against her father’s will.
Ruth is a very different character. We first meet her in prison at the tender age of sixteen as an inmate of Oakgate Prison. She is soon visited by Dorothea, who can’t resist the opportunity to measure the head of a child murderer to help verify her theories. Ruth slowly opens up to Dorothea, describing her history, which begins with a family tragedy a few years earlier. Having shown an aptitude for sewing and embroidery, she is forced into the services of Mrs Metyard when her family loses their house. The conditions are terrible, and she and the other girls in Metyard’s employ are treated as slaves, with any misbehaviour (actual or perceived) severely punished. It’s a heart-breaking tale, and it’s clear that Ruth is pushed to her limits by her experiences there. It may not justify murder, but her actions are easy to understand.
Ruth claims an unusual ability. She can sew an emotion into her work, thereby affecting whoever goes on to own and wear the garment, often to their untimely demise should Ruth take against the individual. It’s a fantastic idea, and I loved how Purcell played with this concept throughout the novel. Dorothea is, of course, sceptical, and while she doesn’t say as much to Ruth, finds alternative reasons for the deaths that Ruth claims she caused and carries on her conscience. Dorothea’s disbelief works well in the novel – Ruth clearly believes that she has this ability, and yet Dorothea offers up entirely plausible alternatives, it’s brilliantly done, and will have the reader questioning Ruth’s reliability as a narrator, and whether her tale is one she has created – unintentionally – as a way to cope with her grief.
The Corset is a compelling tale, and one that I recommend to those who like their fiction with a darker thread woven through it.