The Poison Thread by Laura Purcell (Victorian Gothic Novel, 2018).
First published in the UK, Laura Purcell’s 2nd novel is a compelling and subtle, ultimately satisfying Gothic tale of early Victorian England.
Purcell opens the book with a telling excerpt from “The Song of the Shirt,” a poem from that era that recounts the poverty and appalling conditions endured by the workers who produced the fine clothes the better-off members of their society enjoyed.
Then we jump into the head and heart of Dorothea, an idealistic-and-well-meaning woman from a privileged background. Like so many such of her era, she feels it’s her Christian duty to help the less-fortunate. A believer in the then-popular pseudo-science of phrenology (that claims to predict personality and actions based on the size, shape and contours of the human skull), she visits a women’s prison regularly to examine the inmates. She hopes to prove that changing a person’s environment can cause changes to the skull, and therefore improvements in the subject’s mental and moral health.
With Chapter 2, we meet the latest of the inmate’s. A desperately poor yet very skilled seamstress, Ruth is charged with the sensational murder of her employer. And she says she’s guilty, yet seems unlike any murderer Dorothea has ever encountered.
Chapters alternate between these two women’s viewpoints and we gradually experience both of their lives leading to this point.
Along with the reader, Dorothea realizes that Ruth’s confession is based on her belief in a supernatural power to (mostly inadvertently) curse the garments she makes, bringing doom on the people who receive the objects. The easy answer is that the extremely harsh life Ruth has suffered has caused delusional madness. Or is there some underlying truth to her claims?
Meanwhile, we see Dorothea’s comfortable existence masks dark family secrets that she is only gradually becoming aware of. Plus she’s faced with the restrictive class system of her time, which makes it unlikely that she will ever be able to make a life with the secret love of her life, a humble police officer.
Ruth’s fate is sealed, despite Dorothea’s too-late realization that others have neatly framed her. In fact, the murder the seamstress confessed to was caused by a decidedly ordinary poison.
Yet Ruth’s wild claim of supernatural power may not be mere delusion. In fact, it might allow Dorothea to escape a final and fatal betrayal of her own. In this way, the once-clueless society woman willingly becomes a murderess–albeit one whose defensive crime will never be acknowledged or even suspected.
Much great atmosphere and historical detail mix with shocking acts of abuse and class hypocrisy to produce an excellent book.