Victorian Damsels

The Painted BridgeThe Painted Bridge by Wendy Wallace

Product DetailsIsabels’ Skin by Peter Benson.

Recently I have read two very different Victorian novels. Both centre around women finding their way in Victorian times.

The Painted Bridge has so many fantastic reviews and I was excited to read it. I love a good Victorian novel set in a ‘private asylum for women of a delicate nature’. Anna Palmer is tricked by her husband into entering an asylum after he is embarrassed by her efforts to save people damaged by a shipwreck. A regular visitor to the asylum is Lucas St Clair, a physician using experimental photography to see if he can identify what classifies people as insane rather than sane. The family who own the asylum also feature and you get their stories too. Can Anna overcome her treatments and take control of her destiny?

I enjoyed this novel. I liked all the characters and I was intrigued by the photographic therapy. I could feel the hopelessness of Anna’s situation and enjoyed the tiny moments of doubt that questioned the actual existence of the shipwreck victims. Other characters affected me too. The story of the inmate placed in the asylum by her family after a life in India and marriage to a local saddened me. I have read a number of novels set in Victorian times and this is one of the better ones. The treatments Anna undergoes at the asylum are vividly described without it becoming excessive. Some will make you uncomfortable and glad not to be a Victorian woman. It’s not quite Fingersmith but I recommend it as it is well crafted and tells a fine tale. Although there wasn’t anything sensational enough to startle me and force  the story to linger on my mind, it was thought provoking and authentic in Victorian tone.

Isabel’s skin is a rather unique and creepy story. David Morris is a London book valuer called out to catalogue a collection in rural Somerset. Cue a long journey and lots of colourful locals. Out walking in the countryside he hears some screams and stumbles across a house. The house belongs to Professor Richard Hunt and his live-in experiment: a young woman called Isabel whose skin has an alarming quality.

This book is delightfully full of gothic horror and also has an authentic Victorian tone. Such a preposterous skin condition reminds me a little of the man with the blue hue in Wilkie Collins’s Poor Miss Finch, although that was from a standard medical treatment of the day. It is shorter than The Painted Bridge so I feel I can’t say too much without giving lots of the plot away but you are correct in guessing David Morris can’t resist becoming involved with Isabel. Despite its brevity, I did feel the first and last chapters where rather longwinded ramblings from David Morris. It is good to know his reflections on the events but these chapters detract from the creepy story a bit. Overall it was incredibly imaginative yet believable at the same time. A relatively taut read for fans of the sensationalists.

The Painted Bridge and Isabel’s Skin: Both 4 stars with The Painted Bridge just nudging ahead for reader satisfaction.

Two more Victorian novels I would like to read:

The Skull and the Nightingale by Michael Irwin. Published this summer.

Derby Day: A Victorian MysteryDerby Day by D J Taylor.

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