Blog. I have spent several days’ time travelling, without once leaving the places you are most likely to find me, i.e. stretched out on the couch or propped up by pillows on my bed (I do a lot of lying about.) How did I achieve this Sci-Fi ability when Science knows that time travel is impossible? I discovered the novelist Laura Purcell, that’s how.
Until Laura, I had worshipped at the feet of Michelle Paver. And after Michelle I discovered Diane Setterfield. But then Ms Purcell entered my reading life and stole my reading heart – how fickle we humans are. Yes…. ‘until Laura…’
Was there ever a time before Laura? I find myself pondering this question, in much the same way you might wonder if you’d actually lived before you fell in love (this is an example – I am not in love with Laura.) John Donne neatly sums up this sensation in his ancient 17th century poem The Good Morrow:
I wonder, by my troth, what thou and I
Did, till we loved?
It’s relevant to bring up a poet from the 17th century here, because Laura’s books are all set in the dim and distant past. Laura is, yet again, an ‘historical novelist’.’ I mean, Blog, who knew that this genre would turn out to be my absolute favouritist literary genre? Well, I should have known, is the answer to that one.
For, have I not spent most of my adult life re-reading the classics, for want of finding anything better on bookshop shelves? Intentionally spurning current literature because of a deep-seated prejudice that it could never stand up to the Victorian masters. Well, I was wrong, and it’s taken until my 60s (and a pandemic) to realise that there are some pretty brilliant authors out there, and they’re mostly female. But that’s no surprise. Was not the 19th century awash with female literary geniuses? Not to mention the earlier Jane Austen (one of Ms Purcell’s favourites.)
I spurn books that deal with reality. I want escapism. I yearn for ghostly tales. I want descriptive writing. I want atmosphere. I want strange goings-on and Laura Purcell answers every one of these requirements, as though she were writing just for me. As though the literary Gods have smiled down from their giant library in the sky and answered every one of my literary prayers.
Laura is young. She looks about 14 to someone of my advanced years, with her long, straight brown hair, her spectacles, and her smooth white skin. Actually, she looks like one of her customary female protagonists. How has someone that young managed to produce a book a year? I had some catching up to do, discovering Laura this late in her writing game.
I began with The Silent Companions (2017) the first book to bring her acclaim. As with all historical novelists, Laura teaches us so much along the way. Never have I had to use the dictionary function on my Kindle to such a degree.
Silent Companions (or dummy boards) were a weird 17th century invention. They were flat, painted, life-sized wooden figures that aristocrats (and the hoi polloi for all I know) dotted around their houses, and nobody is quite sure why. I can see why Laura homed in on this peculiar historical practice. Imagine pottering around your 17th century house, in the dark (but then it was always dark in the 17th century) with nothing but a lighted candle, and suddenly coming across that life sized effigy you foolishly bought down the local ye olde emporium and then placed in your dark and dismal hallway a couple of days ago, for reasons that now escape your weird 17th century brain. Give you a right old turn wouldn’t it? And that, readers, is a concise summing up of The Silent Companions. A tale which flits between the 19th and 17th centuries.
I won’t go into details. The Silent Companions received rave reviews upon publication. I have to be honest. The dummy boards idea didn’t really work, in terms of an effective horror device. In fact, I was in danger of thinking that Ms Purcell wasn’t the novelist for me (as her plot began to veer into wholesale lunacy) until I became ensnared in her writing style, which effectively conveys atmosphere and umpteen other things.
One of those things being her characterisations. Ms Purcell’s books overflow with characters who, by the time you reach the last page, leave you with the feeling that these fictional people really did exist. That they still might be pottering about in a sort of alternate reality. Well, the ones Ms Purcell allows to live that is. For there was an awful lot of untimely, agonising death going on in the dim and distant past.
We think Covid is bad. We cower in fear of its invisible hand of death. Well, take a gander at one of Laura’s novels and see what the Victorians had to put up with. Yes, Laura leaves no stone unturned when it comes to the tortuous lives that most people endured in times past. And thus, did I become acquainted with:
Phossy Jaw: more properly known as phosphorus necrosis of the jaw. A revolting disease prevalent amongst workers in match factories who had to apply phosphorus to match heads for ease of striking. The daily contact with phosphorus caused them to develop massive abscesses in their mouths, which led to disfigurement (and sometimes removal of the jaw) and fatal brain damage. Should you ever read Laura’s works, I guarantee you will never deride our health and safety laws again.
Phthisis: TB to you and me. A Victorian scourge I was fully aware of, also going by the Bronte-esque title of Consumption. But I lacked Laura’s detailed description of the suffering it brought, and the weird and completely useless methods the quacks used to try and cure it. Another thing you will learn is that the field of medicine was actually the field of squishing a few herbs in a bowl and hoping for the best. But what it mainly was, was the liberal prescribing of bucket loads of laudanum (an alcoholic tincture of opium.) ‘I have a bit of a headache,’ your average middle-class Victorian Miss would moan. ‘Here, have some heroin!’ your friendly quack would cry. The poor also guzzled down laudanum, and Gin, just to get through their crap lives. Why, the female protagonist of one of Laura’s novels (Bone China) is a full-blown addict.
The Strangling Angel: aka Diphtheria (which has similarities to Covid when you look it up) and which killed thousands of weeny children every year (20% death rate in the under 5’s.) Should you be an anti-vaxxer, maybe Laura will change your mind.
19th century childbirth: Oh, the hell of giving birth, as graphically described by Ms Purcell. For the Poor had to do the whole thing themselves with obvious devastating consequences.
17th century superstition: The persecution of women in the 17th century via the notion that some of them were witches, or agents of the Devil. Yet another example of the hideous abuses of power so often perpetrated by the Christian church (when Christianity had any power that is.) In The Silent Companions’ 17th century timeline (running alongside the Victorian one) an unfortunate mother is burned as a witch for nothing more than mixing a few herbs and spices together. Nowadays we’d call that vegan cooking. The witch-hunt thing went on for 200 years. I was appalled to discover that scholars believe up to 100,000 (some say could possibly be 9 million) people (mostly poor, marginalised women) were tortured and killed for the crime of witchcraft.
I was at a point, last week, in one of Ms Purcell’s novels when life began to imitate Art. I went to get the Astrazeneca jab, just as several of Laura’s characters were suffering the dreaded Fever. I was not looking forward to somebody inserting a chimp virus in my arm but heeded Boris’s call to ‘get the jab done’ nevertheless. I turned up at my local community centre at 11.11 (curiously exact and symmetrical time) and was rushed through at alarming speed. I’d seen people on telly getting their jabs in comfy chairs. Not me. The young girl asked a few questions and then suddenly jabbed me while I was standing up. I was gobsmacked at her ninja jabbing style.
I returned home and didn’t feel a thing. Not even a sore arm. This is ok, I can remember thinking. This isn’t so bad. Come 8 pm I felt a bit cold. ‘Are you cold? I asked the husband. ‘Nope,’ he replied. ‘Well, I’ll just turn the heating up a bit,’ I said. Thirty minutes later I went to bed to warm up a bit. I got under the duvet, thinking this’ll warm me up. Instead, I got colder and colder. My feet felt like blocks of ice. I went back downstairs and turned the heating up as high as it would go. Then I put a nightgown on top of my nightie and threw on another duvet. Still, I was freezing.
I dozed off but then woke with horrible eye pain. Every eye movement caused a deep pain. Then the sinus pains hit in my nose and cheeks. Then the jaw pains hit. Then the nausea. At 5 am I got up to take paracetamol. I walked downstairs, clinging to the handrail like the house was a boat at sea, and turned on the kitchen light. Immediately strobe lighting filled my vision. Was it the kitchen light? I turned the light off and the flickering lights continued. Panic began to build. Were disco lights a side effect of the Covid jab? Then electrical ‘zaps’ filled my brain and my ever- present tinnitus ramped up to epic proportions. I went back to bed, fearing the tinnitus would crack my head open, and stayed there until midday the following day when my arm began to hurt along with my shoulders. ‘You were as hot as an oven last night,’ the husband said.
So that was my reaction to the Covid jab (the husband had no reaction to the Pfizer one.) I only hope my second jab is less severe. Must keep a sense of perspective though. The husband has been jabbing himself with drugs (the medical kind) for years.
But back to Laura Purcell. Her nuggets of historical horror are peppered across all four of her novels. But the horror is doable. It’s not gratuitous or overdone. After I finished The Silent Companions, I downloaded The Corset, and then Bone China and finally The Shape of Darkness. The Shape of Darkness will stay with me for quite some time.
I now crave another Laura Purcell novel; in the way her characters crave laudanum and gin. I can only hope that Ms Purcell continues to churn out her compulsive, page-turning, Gothic fiction.