What’s Past Is Past, and in This Case, Be Glad
The year is 1831, and Gustine is a 15-year-old prostitute in the English town of Sunderland. Gripped by a cholera epidemic, the city is under quarantine, and the air is rife with fear and rumor. Some doubt that the disease even exists, while the poor think that there is some dark plot by the upper classes to kill them off. Sheri Holman leads us through alleys and whorehouses into a seamy, survival-of-the-fittest universe. “The Dress Lodger” is nearly devoid of redeeming characters; the best we get are the tortured pathologist Dr. Henry Chiver and the young Gustine, who is the “Dress Lodger” of the title, so named because her pimp, Whilky Robinson, dresses his girls in fancier finery in order, we are told, to attract a finer clientele.
To guard his investment, Robinson employs a one-eyed, mute old woman, ominously called “The Eye,” who trails Gustine at all times. Gustine is understandably unnerved by the Eye, all the more so because she believes the hag responsible for the strange birth defect that afflicts her child. Gustine is mother to an infant who was born with her heart outside its rib cage, on top of its chest. Somehow, it survived its first few months and stirs the strange ambitions of Dr. Chiver.
Doctors in these years had to forage for bodies to dissect, both for medical training and scientific experiments, and the practice of purchasing bodies and robbing graves cast a pall over their reputation. Chiver has fled Edinburgh, where he was implicated in a murder scandal in which poor men and women were killed by agents paid to procure corpses for dissection. He hates the degradation of his life and yearns to find a cure for cholera. When he discovers Gustine’s baby, he tries to persuade the young girl to give up the child to him, in the interests of science.
It’s a gritty story, set in a historical period that seems to have permeated our collective unconscious, perhaps due to the works of Charles Dickens, and indeed, there is something Dickensian about “The Dress Lodger.” But where Dickens was holding up a mirror to his world, Holman is trying to conjure a far-removed historical memory. The result is a book that tries too hard. We never forget that we are reading. Like a director who uses hand-held cameras, jump cuts, jolting music and grainy film, Holman throws in every narrative technique imaginable in an attempt to unsettle and to conjure up a lost world. But the hand is too heavy, and it is difficult to be swept up in the story, because the author is always there, in front of the page, as if to say, “Do you see? Do you see?”
It comes as no surprise that the story ends tragically. Reaching the final page, it’s hard to shake the feeling that a thin layer of soot has collected on one’s skin. If there is any higher meaning here, it lies in the character of Dr. Chiver, whose fate is a reminder that historical progress isn’t always evident when it’s happening. We may celebrate the discoveries of modern medicine, but it’s humbling to recognize that many of the innovations were probably the result of venal men and their self-serving ambitions. We may shudder at the filth, the poverty and the disease of the early Industrial Revolution, but from that caldron emerged the modern world, sanitary conditions, vaccinations and longer, fuller lives. Some things never change, human pettiness and ugliness among them, but some things do, and we can be grateful that the world of “The Dress Lodger” is forever past.