It’s very rare that I am completely engaged in historical fiction. I feel that I am very picky and often go into historical fiction expecting not to like it, which makes it even harder for me to enjoy the genre. I think I have just had too much of Tudor romances and Phillipa Gregory, which seem so formulaic to me. I was pretty sure, however, that I would like The Dress Lodger, by Sheri Holman as soon as I read the description though. Why, you may ask? Because it deals with prostitution and pestilence—what could be better?? Not to mention, as soon as I started the book, I could tell that Holman’s writing was different and refreshing. We are introduced to our heroine, Gustine, in an innovative way—
. . . if you were to compose your own story—forgetting for a moment the small fact that you cannot write—would you choose this Saturday night, outside of this cheap theatre, through this veil of frogs, in which to introduce your heroine? If you might have at your command the entire globe, any moment of historical influence, if you might in the writing of a humble book bring back to life a Queen of Sheba or an Empress Josephine, would you strew her path with frogs in dirty Sunderland when you might pluck from your imagination green emeralds to scatter before her in Zanzibar? No, we thought not. You are a personage of fine taste . . . if the story were in your hands, we might expect no unpleasantness, no murder or blackest betrayal, for you are not of a punishing nature.
I just couldn’t wait to see where Holman would take us after reading the opening. Come to find out, Gustine is a young prostitute who is, despite everything going against her, is quite bright and sassy. She has met a young doctor, Henry, a few weeks earlier and is now trying to procure dead bodies for him so that he may practice autopsies on them, as well as his students. Most people are unwilling to donate their bodies after death, so there is a lot of body snatching going on. Then there is the cholera epidemic, which makes doctors yearn for a diseased corpse so that they may study the effects of cholera on the body. Believe me when I say, body snatching was apparently not as easy as it sounds.
So Gustine seems to have this reverence for Henry, but he is embarrassed of Gustine because of her profession. She is a prostitute, although she goes about it in a different way than most prostitutes at the time. She has a beautiful blue dress that her pimp Whilky bought for her, the point being that looking like a high class, moneyed woman will get her richer clientele. Gustine is a potter by day and also cares for her baby boy, whom she is deeply protective of. You see, her baby was born with his heart on the outside of his body, with just a thin membrane covering it. Once Henry discovers her son’s condition, he tries to gain custody of her son at all costs so that he can have control over this medical phenomenon.
The Dress Lodger is a look into the social classes of Victorian England. You have Gustine who works her butt of at two jobs to care for her son. Despite her hard work, she is one step away from being thrown out onto the street. Her landlord is Whilky, who is also her pimp, so she is forced to do what he says on all levels to ensure that she has a roof over her head and can care for her child. Meanwhile, Henry is fickle because he has money and social status and can afford to do so. He looks down upon Gustine, despite all that she tries to do for him, and even attempts to gain custody of her son without her consent because he can. There is also the severe distrust from poor people when it comes to doctors. They feel that the rich are just trying to feed off of them, so they often refuse medical care because they feel that suffering from a deadly disease is safer then putting their trust into doctors.
The Dress Lodger is historical fiction at its best. Holman was able to take a specific time and place and make it come alive for the reader. There was so much food for thought plus it incorporated some of the most interesting issues of that era and made it into a cohesive story. I was rooting for Gustine for the entire book and was in awe of the way she was able to keep a positive outlook despite the hand dealt to her.
Didn’t see any–let me know if I missed your review and I will link it.
I borrowed this book from my local library.
This book counts toward the Women Unbound challenge.