Bone China is another atmospheric historical gothic novel by Laura Purcell, suffused in superstition and illness. Hester Why arrives at Morvoren House in Cornwall to take up a lady’s maid position with secrets surrounding her flight from London. What she finds there isn’t an escape, however, but a strange situation: Miss Pinecroft, sitting in a freezing room full of china, unwell and looking older than her years. An old servant obsessed with fairies and a mysterious ward add to the weirdness. And forty years previously, Louise Pinecroft and her father move after consumption ravages their family, hoping that the sea air will provide the answer to her father’s experiments on ill convicts, but the new maid tells her tales of fairies and the dangers they pose.
It is exciting to have a historical gothic novel that focuses on contemporary medicine that is set during the Regency and before rather than the usual Victorian setting. The tension between scientific ideas, passed down knowledge, and otherworldly magic provides a good backdrop for a novel also about the power structure of servants and those above them and the different things that keep people locked up, whether literally or not. These concepts of power and imprisonment fit well with actual gothic novels of the period in which the book is set, and the genre is used well to start to explore these (though it would’ve been interesting to see Hester’s reliance on alcohol and laudanum developed further). There are some threads that don’t feel fully explored in the novel, but this does allow it more ambiguity and gives space for mystery.
Fans of Purcell’s other novels will likely enjoy this one, which uses similar gothic tropes but also engages with the period of the earlier gothic novels (with references to Wordsworth, Byron, and the Prince Regent serving as reminders to this). It combines medicine and superstition in interesting ways and offers a morally complex point of view character who proves that the gothic isn’t just a genre centred around helpless, innocent women.