A well-rendered novel of extraordinary lives in Victorian London.
Bodices are ripped, to be sure, but Clark (Savage Lands, 2010, etc.) offers much more than a genre romance with her tale of the darkly beautiful Maribel Campbell Lowe, of whom we learn, early on, “Mrs. Campbell Lowe is from Chile where llamas really live and therefore, unlike a little English girl, knows exactly how to say it right.” She knows more than how to pronounce the double ell. Maribel is a freethinker, savage smoker of cigarettes, literata and artist who knows her way around that newfangled thing called a view camera (“The darkroom smelled as it always did of chemicals and used-up air”). Her husband, wild and Scottish, is no slouch in the bohemian department, either; an aristocratic imbiber of great quaffs of distilled goodies, he’s a headline waiting to happen. Enter newsman Alfred Webster, who professes to admire their free-spirited ways—but then begins to warm up to a carefully hidden secret from Maribel’s past, for how could she not have a fathomlessly deep mystery at her core? Amid Dickensian flourishes (“Them jam tarts’ll need taking out in a minute”) that sometimes wander into Drood territory, Clark’s characters play fine and psychologically dense games of cat and mouse, some with unlikely set decorations furnished by Buffalo Bill and his immensely popular Wild West Show—not to mention Queen Vicky herself. It makes for a grand adventure, and Clark’s novel is so richly textured and detailed that the reader might rightly wish that she return to her former profession as a historian—for a rousing social history of the Victorian era, written to these standards, would be a welcome thing. But given some of her book’s subthemes, including the endless tawdriness of Fleet Street and the endless hypocrisy of the social world, that era, as Clark recounts it, seems all too modern.
Long, intricate and very well-realized: a page turner for the smart set.