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Genre Historical Fiction
Publication Date September 2018
Length 392 pages
Content Warnings Violence, blood/gore, abuse, capital punishment, alcohol abuse, suicide, racism
What It’s About
Dorothea has enough of her own worries – trying to continue her studies of phrenology under the disapproving eye of her father, dodging her simpering stepmother-to-be at society balls, and dissuading men with matrimonial hopes. Yet when visiting a woman’s prison on charitable errands, she feels drawn to the tragic story of Ruth Butterham, a maid and seamstress condemned to death for the murder of her mistress.
Ruth is an enigma, a girl of only sixteen who has already endured a lifetime of suffering. Always refusing to become a victim, this young prisoner holds onto a burning core of vengefulness that allures and repels Dorothea in equal measure. Is Ruth guilty, or is her confession the product of her own disturbing delusions?
First Chapter Impressions
I don’t usually read fantasy books so I was a little dubious about the magical realism/supernatural twist in The Corset. However, I realised in the opening few chapters that the magical elements were very subtle – in fact, readers are never quite sure whether the hints of the supernatural are real or exist only in the characters’ minds. I’d definitely recommend this novel to historical fiction fans, even if you’re not usually into fantasy or the supernatural.
I especially liked how the magical elements were used metaphorically as symbols to explore themes of women’s empowerment and oppression.
Final Page Reflections
The Corset is written from two perspectives, those of Ruth and Dorothea. Usually it’s inevitable that one perspective will engage me more than the other, but in this case I loved how the two women’s lives interacted and overlapped.
While their backgrounds couldn’t be more different, Dorothea’s life of decadent luxury contrasting starkly with Ruth’s hardship, both women experience feelings of repression and frustration that irrevocably draw them together. Neither story would have been the same without the other.
No spoilers, but the ending was a flash of brilliance that brought the two stories colliding headlong! I love those final chapters that make you think to yourself ‘ooh, I can’t believe the author went there!’
Diversity and Representation
The Corset certainly carries a powerful feminist message, but for me this subtext of empowerment was tainted by one issue…
And now, into the controversy. I found myself feeling very uncomfortable with how the character of Miriam or Mim is portrayed. She is the only black character in the novel, but is given very little function in the story other than to be repeatedly traumatised and to show how ‘nice and not-racist’ the protagonist is.
As a white woman reading the book, I probably would not have noticed this issue had I not attended a conference in which a black woman talked about her experiences of studying literature. She gave the example of John Steinbeck’s novel, in which the black character Crooks functions only for trauma and ‘misery porn’.
In fairness to Purcell, she does include Ann Nailor, the real-life inspiration for Miriam, in her acknowledgments. However, I would have liked Ann/Miriam’s story to be honoured with more time to develop as an individual character, and less gratuitous violence.
- Crime and justice
- The domestic world
Beyond the Book
Dorothea is interested in phrenology, a discipline common in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries that sought to determine a person’s moral character based on the shape of their skull. These ideas first struck me as rudimentary and riddled with ethical issues.
As I read more about her studies, though, I began to see parallels with modern neuroscience. For example, studies are attempting to discern the difference between the brain of a psychopath and a non-psychopath. I think we have always been and will remain fascinated with the question of whether criminals and those who commit acts of evil are born or created.
If you’re reading The Corset as a book club pick or just looking to ponder the story in a little more depth, these questions should help get you started:
1. What do you think are the responsibilities of white authors to their characters of colour?
2. Dorothea meets with Ruth while attending the prison on charitable visits. What did you think of the power dynamic in their relationship? Did this change throughout the book?
3. The hints of the supernatural in The Corset become metaphors for exploring themes of women’s empowerment and oppression. Have you read any other magical realism books that make use of supernatural elements to explore meaningful social themes?
“But then I have noted that murderous thoughts seldom trouble the pretty and the fashionable.”~ Laura Purcell, ‘The Corset’
Read If Your interest is piqued by a subversive, feminist historical fiction novel with a magical realism twist.
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You may also like: Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood.
Have you read The Corset? What’s the best historical fiction novel that you’ve been reading recently? Let me know in the comments – I would love to hear from you!