A seduced and abandoned maiden’s tribulations in early 18th-century London are recounted with almost frightening gusto in the British author’s successor to her debut historical novel, The Great Stink (2005).
When teenaged Eliza Tally is rejected by the well-born lover who impregnated her, then “married” her only nominally, Eliza’s pragmatic mother sends her away to become maid to London apothecary Grayson Black, whose truculent wife manages the household and savagely mistreats Eliza and her “half-witted” companion servant Mary. Eliza’s pregnancy is also endangered by the unwelcome attentions of Black’s oafish apprentice Edgar Pettigrew—and by her increasing suspicions that scientific researches undertaken by the secretive Black are disturbingly related to his interest in her services. The narrative of Eliza’s experiences and discoveries is juxtaposed with Black’s research notes and correspondence, from which we learn that he is studying “effects of strong emotions, fear, desire, and such like, upon the physical form of a foetus”; furthermore, using pregnant females as laboratory animals, to learn what “monsters” they may produce. The roots of Black’s obsession lie in the circumstances of his own birth: a story Clark (unwisely) declines to tell. Instead, she concocts a raving melodrama (precisely and impressively researched, but almost insanely lurid). It’s a compound of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Samuel Richardson’s Pamela and Daniel Defoe’s Moll Flanders, in which too many characters are drooling or malformed grotesques and virtually every scene is a festering sewer (the spectacle of St. Paul’s Cathedral being a hopeful exception), with numerous incidents plunging into stomach-churning visceral and excretory detail. Eliza perseveres, thanks to an initially benign bookseller, thwarted by the malevolent Ms. Black, ennobled by her protective affection for the pathetic Mary (whose own history holds secrets eventually disclosed). And all falls apart, in a climax so absurd it would seem excessive in the lamest of bodice-rippers.
Clark has talent and energy to burn. But she’s burning both up in wasteful displays of gratuitous pyrotechnics.