Tuesday, 25 September 2012

The Mesmerist - Barbara Ewing

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I loved the main characters, Cordelia and Rillie, two ex-actresses who put their past careers behind them and set up in business.  Each has a past they don't refer to - but in Cordelia's case, this past will come back to haunt her.  Set in Victorian London, at a time when Bloomsbury was only up and coming.... and when Seven Dials in Covent Garden was still a place of open sewers, pickpockets and tarts with raddled faces. 

When the two friends once again have their wages reduced by a theatre tour manager, they decide to walk home from Guilford to London and, over a glass of port, decide on a different way of life.  Cordelia will become, as her aunt before her, a mesmerist (a sort of forerunner of hypnotists), Rillie sees in the customers and plays the flute in the background whilst Cordelia does the treatment.  It isn't long before there is another string to her bow.  Lots of young brides-to-be come to her worried about their forthcoming wedding nights - and the ladies, over research at the library, realise that whilst there is plenty of guidance for young men, there is absolutely nothing available for young women.  Cordelia can find a way of explaining, very gently, what to expect after they are married - and this becomes a successful part of their business.  So successful, in fact, that they are able to move from their two homes (2 rooms for each of them, and Rillie sharing hers with her mother and a friend) into an entire house in Bedford Square.  They do not get above their station, but the past comes to haunt them and things start to go very wrong.

There are lovely Dickensian names throughout (Mrs Spoons, Rillie's demented mother; Mr George Tryfont act-or;  Mr Tunks, coronor are just a few examples);  descriptions of alehouses, back alleys, and also the smell of poverty everywhere.  This was a time when actresses were regarded by most of the rest of the population as just up from whores in the pecking order, and were treated accordingly.  How strange that two layers of working women where looked down on like that.  After all, if no money is inherited, we must all work at something.  And journalists?  Much the same as today, those that worked for the cheaper end of the market making up stories that fitted the persons concerned..... now where have we heard that one before?

Great romping read - easy to loose yourself in the story of Cordelia and Rillie and their friends and families.