The Corset by Laura Purcell: Feminist Historical Fiction with a Magical Realism Twist

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The Corset by Laura Purcell Book Cover Image

Rating

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Genre Historical Fiction

Format Paperback

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?

Review

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.

The Corset by Laura Purcell Book Review Pinterest Graphic

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!’

Mood

The Corset by Laura Purcell Mood Cloud

Analysis

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.

The Corset by Laura Purcell Quote

Themes

  • Class
  • Revenge
  • Crime and justice
  • Feminism
  • The domestic world
  • Psychology
  • Morality
  • Family

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.

Discussion Questions

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?

Summary

Favourite Quote

“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!


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2 thoughts on “The Corset by Laura Purcell: Feminist Historical Fiction with a Magical Realism Twist

  1. I can’t see our fascination with the brain disappearing any time soon. We have come a long way from the pseudoscience of phrenology, but our present day neurology and evolutionary psychology doubtless owe a debt to it. Dispite the problematic issues over racial representation you have highlighted, this book does sound interesting, I’m starting to get the hang of Magical Realism, and find it much easier to follow than hardcore fantasy. Thought provoking review as always xx

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for the comment Alyson! I really enjoyed how The Corset explored how pressing and urgent debates around psychology can feel. I’m also getting into magical realism and would definitely recommend this as a brilliant example of the genre, as long as you’re mindful of its issues 📚❤️ X x x

      Like

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