Mystery of the Month – The Corset

Sixteen-year-old seamstress Ruth Butterham is convinced she has the ability to harm others by stitching evil thoughts into her needlework. She is awaiting trial for the murder of her mistress when wealthy Dorothea Truelove meets her in the Oakgate Women’s prison. Dorothea has a keen interest in phrenology and wants to study Ruth’s ‘crania’, believing it to be “the palace of the soul”. She thinks Ruth may be able to change the shape of her skull if she works to amend her murderess ways.

This is the premise of The Corset, the latest gothic mystery from Laura Purcell, author of the very successful Silent Companions – another haunting tale where the reader questions whether the main character is victim to a supernatural evil or human evil.

The story alternates between Dorothea’s and Ruth’s points of view, with Ruth recounting her upbringing with an alcoholic artist father, and ailing mother, who works tirelessly stitching clothes for the demanding Mrs Metyard. After a violent attack by a fellow schoolgirl, Ruth channels her feelings of anger and resentment into the stitching of a corset. A series of tragic events follow, leading Ruth to believe she is responsible – but is she really cursed or is it all coincidence?

The Corset is inspired by the true story of Sarah and Sally Metyard, a mother and daughter who operated a milliner in London in 1758 and who abused an apprentice so badly that she died, resulting in the pair being hung for murder. Ruth is sold by her mother to the fictional version of Mrs Metyard following the death of her father, where she and four other girls are subject to horrific treatment at the hands of Mrs Metyard and her daughter, Kate. Laura Purcell skilfully describes Ruth’s torment, encouraging a great sympathy for her as a character and causing the reader to question how she could possibly be a vindictive killer. However, Dorothea believes Ruth must be lying because her story doesn’t match up with what Dorothea feels in the shape of Ruth’s skull.

Anthropological studies have shown that the tight lacing of corsets could change the skeleton of the wearer and for some, the position of their organs. The metaphor of the suffocating and restrictive corset rings true for both Dorothea and Ruth. Dorothea feels trapped by her father’s expectations of her – she should not be “spouting on about criminals, or science, or any other topics a young lady should be ignorant upon.” He wants her to marry well, but Dorothea compares being a society wife to “standing in a bog” and instead wants to marry a policeman and live in London. Ruth experiences a similar lack of control over her life, unable to escape the clutches of the Metyard’s for fear that harm will come to her mother and believing herself to be the victim of her own hand.

Purcell’s writing is visceral and several scenes make for uncomfortable reading, particularly a description of Ruth’s mother’s graphic childbirth experience and the girls’ violent treatment at the hands of the Metyards. The plot is as expertly woven as Ruth’s handiwork, with a few shocking twists, including one involving Mrs Metyard’s beastly husband, The Captain. The conclusion is tightly sewn, leading the reader to the true villain of the piece. Another triumph for Laura Purcell, The Corset is chilling, brutal and spellbinding reading that leaves no loose threads.

The Corset by Laura Purcell is published by Bloomsbury Raven.

Standout Simile: –

Evil thoughts float about the house like smuts from a fire. They speckle, they smear, they find a way in.

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