The Corset is a gothic historical novel that unfolds a strange narrative of a girl who seems to be able to kill with a needle and thread, and the woman who visits her in prison and hears her story. Dorothea is a young, fairly well-off Victorian woman whose now-dead mother instilled a belief in charitable work in her. During her visits to Oakgate Prison she meets Ruth Butterham, a sixteen-year-old girl accused of murder. Dorothea wants to test her theory about the shape of a person’s skull determining their life and morality, and Ruth seems perfect. Instead, Ruth starts telling her story and Dorothea finds her belief stretched and a chilling connection with her own life.
Purcell’s The Silent Companions was a creepy tale of a young widow, but The Corset goes even further to create a classic gothic story that highlights injustice and being a victim through the use of menace and possible unexplainable phenomena. Moving between the perspectives of Dorothea as she visits Ruth and considers marriage to escape her father, and Ruth’s story of the strange power of her sewing allows for Purcell to highlight the similarities and differences between the two women. Madness, revenge, and different kinds of imprisonment run throughout the narrative and it also plays with perspective, leading to a satisfying ending again in a classic gothic style.
The Corset feels like a natural successor to late eighteenth and early nineteenth gothic novels in its combination of a strange unfolding narrative of death and revenge and its use of this narrative to expose oppression, imprisonment, and kinds of oppression. It is likely to be another popular gothic read from Purcell, with hints of Sarah Waters’ Affinity in subject matter and a main character whose name makes it impossible not to think of Middlemarch.