First Published: 2012 by Penguin
My copy: Bought on Kindle
Memorable quote: “I have often considered that the attraction of any prison for idle visitors must be one with that of the bedlam and the graveyard; the fortunate fact that, while they thrill to its horrors, they are not compelled to remain there – for the moment at least.”
If this blog has seemed a little quiet lately it’s because I’ve been away on holiday. Vacations always provide a great excuse to splash out on a few holiday reads, and with its tantalising blurb promising gaslit alleys and a peep into the seedier side of 19th century life, this slice of Victoriana seemed like it would prove the ideal literary companion for my trip to Leipzig, Germany for the fantastic Wave Gotik Treffen festival. I am a fan of Victorian sensation fiction, both the work of original writers like Wilkie Collins and their modern imitators, so Darby’s consciously melodramatic tone certainly kept me entertained in planes, trains and hotel rooms. The story revolves around three very different characters, each allotted their own share of the narrative. Edward Fraser is an Oxford student of divinity who fears for the safety of his best friend and room mate, Stephen Chapman, a young doctor who volunteers at a local shelter for fallen women and quickly finds himself captivated by the lady who runs it, the mysterious Diana Pelham. Striving to rescue his beloved friend from what he sees as a highly undesirably match, Fraser seeks to expose the secrets from Diana’s past but soon all three find themselves caught in a web of deceit and by the machinations of a character for whom the expression “dastardly villain” is no overstatement.
While it was refreshing to read a novel of this ilk that focused on an Victorian underworld outside of London’s – The Whore’s Asylum is set in the historic Oxford suburb of Jericho – overall, I have to say I found this tale a little disappointing. This was a solid enough debut, but it never quite matched the gripping intensity of, say, Sarah Waters’ Fingersmith or Michel Faber’s The Crimson Petal and the White. The plot races along between some deliciously overdone set-piece scenes, featuring – among other ingredients – duels, decadent soirées and dungeons yet somehow the overall tone is considerably less gritty or sensational than I’d been expecting. Darby really knows how to evoke an atmosphere of mystery, yet this talent is at once the novel’s strength and its weakness since none of the novel’s final revelations live up to its initial atmosphere of intrigue.
I had hoped to read more on the fascinating topic of the treatment of fallen women in the nineteenth century but although several prostitutes do make an appearance, the shelter itself does not feature as heavily in the action as the title would imply. Indeed, I notice that the later paperback edition of this book has been retitled The Unpierced Heart and, while less dramatic, this is a more accurate indication of the plot which very much focuses on the emotional tensions between Edward, Stephen and Diana. Overall there was more romance and less sensation here than I had been expecting but this may be a more a criticism of the way the book is pitched and marketed than how it is written. A sumptuous looking volume, with some charming old-fashioned style illustrations that really complement its vivid descriptions and interesting characters, fans of Gothic fiction and Victoriana should find this worth a read (especially if you have a holiday coming up!) And while I wouldn’t place Katy Darby in the genre’s premier league – yet – I shall certainly be interested to see what she does next.