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The Dress Lodger (2001)

The Dress Lodger (2001)
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Rating
3.56 of 5 Votes: 1
ISBN
0345436911 (ISBN13: 9780345436917)
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English
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ballantine books
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The Dress Lodger (2001)
The Dress Lodger (2001)

About book: Turn the pages of The Dress Lodger and you’re turning the dial on a time machine. Destination: England, 1831.Sheri Holman’s novel is one of those rare pieces of historical fiction which thrust you so completely into another time, another place, that the modern world—with all its bright, sparkly conveniences—melts away. Welcome to the Industrial Revolution, dear reader. You’ll feel the mud, you’ll smell the rotting wharf life, you’ll taste the bitter cholera on your tongue. You’ll also want to shower afterwards.The Dress Lodger is part thriller, part character study, part social treatise. But it’s all good.Written in the florid style of Charles Dickens, but with the darkly ick-factor of a modern-day Stephen King, the book follows several characters through the port town of Sunderland during a horrific cholera epidemic in the fall of 1831. Gustine is a potter’s assistant by day, a 15-year-old prostitute by night. As she walks the streets of Sunderland looking for a “quick poke” from any man with coins in his pocket, she’s trailed by an ugly old hag known only as the Eye. The one-eyed crone is paid by Gustine’s pimp to “keep an eye” on her while she plies her private wares. Gustine is one of those prostitutes who’s known as a “dress lodger”—each night, she wears a blue gown to attract men. Her pimp hires the Eye spy to make sure the valuable dress isn’t stolen. Here’s how Holman describes the arrangement:Dress lodging works on this basic principle: a cheap whore is given a fancy dress to pass as a higher class of prostitute. The higher the class of prostitute, the higher the station, the higher the price. In return, the girl is given a roof over her head and a few hours of make-believe. Everyone is happy.Except everyone in Sunderland is miserable. The town has been quarantined, strangling the city’s economy. Ships must remain off-shore while their cargo rots in the holds below. Meanwhile, most of the residents believe the cholera epidemic is a government conspiracy created to scare the poor classes. Most people don’t even believe there’s such a thing as the deadly disease. To the working class citizens, doctors are the real villains in early 19th-century England—after all, they’re the ones who go around robbing graves and dissecting corpses, all in the name of science.This brings us to our next character: Dr. Henry Chiver, a zealous young surgeon who’s recently fled Edinburgh where he was involved in a famous case of two anatomists—Burke and Hare—who were convicted of murder and grave robbing. Holman paints Henry in some pretty unflattering light—he’s selfish, self-righteous and chillingly devoted to the pursuit of science…even at the expense of human life.Henry and Gustine collide early in the course of the novel as each discovers the other has something they want. For Henry, it’s a chance for more bodies as Gustine leads him to corpses she discovers during her street peddling. For Gustine, the possibly deranged doctor represents her last best hope for her infant, a little boy who was born with his heart on the outside of his body (yes, literally…you have to read it to believe it).The novel is filled with bodysnatching, crude dissections and scenes of primitive medical horror that Hannibal Lecter would probably read like pornography. The weak-stomached are warned that some pages are rather hard to…well, stomach. But, thanks to Holman’s incredible eye for detail, the language is always vivid and rich. Here, for instance, is one particularly memorable grave-robbing scene:Henry drops the body sharply against the coffin and scrambles back to the surface. This isn’t happening. Calm down. Calm down, he tells himself. Men far less competent and careful than you have dug up bodies and not been driven mad by it. Reach in, feel under her armpits. Pull. Yes, this is not the smell of rye, but merely a ripening body not yet preserved in salt. This heaviness I understand; it is not a frantic pulling back to the grave but the purely scientific phenomenon of blood pooling in the extremities. He lies flat on his belly and tugs the young woman free of the earth.Holman’s way with words is so good that it overshadows some of the book’s problems—namely, the unlikable Henry who takes center stage in the narrative like a raving Dr. Frankenstein, and the pitiable Gustine who blindly and resolutely walks toward tragedy even as we’re clenching our fingers where they grip the book and calling out, “No, no, no!” The Dress Lodger ends in a heap of grim, cluttered tragedy which almost literally hurts to read. But I can see Holman’s point: this wasn’t the best of times, it was the worst of times.

There are many pleasant fictions of the law in constant operation, but there is not one so pleasant or practically humorous as that which supposes every man to be of equal value in its impartial eye, and the benefits of all laws to be equally attainable by all men, without the smallest reference to the furniture of their pockets.—Charles Dickens, Nicholas NicklebyI can't decide if this is a. 3 or 4 star novel. The Dress Lodger was very effective in drawing the reader into the 19th century. But it was creepy. Many times I felt like a peeping Tom. Gustine is a 15 year old potter's assistant by day and a prostitute in a rented dress by night. Her pimp and landlord, Wilky, has hired a one eyed hag, Eye, to keep her eye on Gustine and the dress. In turn, Gustine hires Whilky's daughter, Pink, to keep an eye on Gustine's "special" infant son and to keep Eye's eye off of the unnamed baby. Pink, whose eyes are lined in red from infection, prefers the company of her father's ferret, Mike. All of this occurs in a boarded up, fetid rooming house which shelters about 30 of Sunderland's poor. Fos, short for phosphorescent, like her decaying jaw from the phosphorus used in painting matchsticks , brings cholera into this shelter . This is just the beginning of the horrors. Remember, the cholera epidemic starts slowly, but soon speeds through house after house, town after town and then country after country. Livng conditions, misunderstandings about how disease is dispersed along with superstitions and cultural rites, like wakes, are accurately shown.Holman also lets us see how the other half lives. Their homes are of course larger, heated, cleaned and attended to, by workers a step or two higher than Gustine. Dr. Henry Chiver, suffers because of a scandal, but has a home with servants, bottles of wine and money in his pocket. Yet, doctors need cadavers to study. What better place to find them them, but in the slums and grave yards of the poor. It may seem cold hearted and sinister to the bereaved, but science is more important, isn't it? Yet the poor, illiterate and fallen (prostitutes, pimps,etc.) believe that their dead deserve peace in a final resting place. The creepy part is when Holman takes us along to dinner, whether it be a hardened piece of bread, a fish scrap, a bit of candy or a picnic lunch of chicken and wine. She steers us through the toilet pails which contain urine for washing and the waste slop which is saved in pails. We watch as Gustine, the dress lodger, meets men and is used by them in a corner, against a rock and in a chair next to her infant son. Chiver yearns for Gustine's baby because his heart is visible , for Gustine because her heart is strong and true and because Chiver knows that he is heartless. Why is this creepy? I just felt that I was privy to too much. I tasted the hunger, felt the cold, the heat and heard the silent cries of the disturbed dead. The smell of the sick, the unwashed, the human waste was pervasive . The blindness and lack of feeling by the healers, the doctors, is apparent to lowest class.Watching Gustine, a single mother, juggling two jobs in order to care for her son, though she has no hopes or goals for herself was voyeuristic and uncomfortable because I read it while sitting on a soft couch while munching on a cookie, safe and warm as it rained outside.
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Reviews
Chana
I’ve had a hard time deciding how to approach a journal entry for this book. It was disturbing and beautiful both. While reading it I kept thinking, ‘Dr. Henry Chivers is a horse’s ass’ but really he wasn’t. He was possibly mentally unbalanced and he was casually cruel in the way only people who think they are superior and are “doing good” in the world can be. The writing is immediate because of the entrancing imagery, but also allowed the reader some distance because of the historical perspective. The setting is Sunderland, England in 1831 during the cholera epidemic. In some ways cholera is the main character and we see cholera in our variety of characters; the doctors, the rich, the poor - especially the poor.
Michelegg
This was a gritty, dark book. It takes place during the Spanish Cholera outbreak in England. I can still see in my mind the slimy vegetable leavings on the front porches, the polluted air, the poor families starving to death. Then there's Gustine covered in pottery clay head to foot as she works in the factory and then dons the blue dress at night to earn money as a prostitute, all to feed her precious baby boy.There's the Eye who follows her to make sure she doesn't steal the dress, and Dr. Chiver who needs dead bodies to study. Then the cholera strikes and everyone starts dying.Incredibly written, so descriptive I felt I was there walking through the lime covered ground in the cemetary. So sad! Made me glad to live in America with its cleanliness and conveniences.
Terence
A very strong 3.5+ stars, which I’m rounding up to 4 because I enjoyed it more than other recent books I’ve given 3 stars to (damnit GR, give us ½ stars or more of them to play with!).The Dress Lodger takes place in 1831 in Sunderland, an industrializing seaport on the northeast coast of England, as cholera gains its first foothold in the kingdom. It’s a decidedly grim novel, uncompromising in showing the desperate and dehumanizing poverty of the city’s denizens, and the callow and callous indifference of the better off.Holman follows six characters:Gustine: Gustine is the “dress lodger” of the title. (A dress lodger is a prostitute who rents a fine dress to attract a better class of customer.) She’s the fifteen-year-old mother of a boy who’s born with an ectopic heart – it’s outside his ribcage, protected only by the skin and muscle of his chest. Since age nine, Gustine has worked six days a week in a pottery factory, and now to support her son, she walks the streets wearing a dress rented from Whilky Robinson, her landlord and pimp. Her desire to secure a safe life for her child seems within reach when she meets Dr. Henry Chiver.The Eye: The Eye is Gustine’s “shadow,” hired by Whilky to follow the girl so she won’t steal the dress. An ancient, one-eyed hag, The Eye becomes the focus of Gustine’s hatred, anger and fear for her child’s life as she believes the old woman is responsible for the baby’s deformity and wants to finish the job started at his birth by killing him.Dr. Henry Chiver: Chiver was a student of Dr. Knox, the Edinburgh physician who benefited from the murderous acquisitions of Brendan Burke and William Hare, serial murderers who provided doctors with bodies for dissection. His reputation ruined, Chiver has moved to Sunderland, where his fiancée’s uncle, also a doctor, lives. Circumstances conspire to bring Chiver and Gustine together one night where he tells her of his need for bodies and she realizes he could be the means to save her baby.Audrey Place: Audrey is Chiver’s fiancée. She’s only a couple of years older than Gustine but her life has been comfortable and fenced off from the horrific conditions most Sunderlanders live under. Intelligent but naïve, her innocent charitable efforts have far reaching and tragic consequences.Whilky Robinson: Robinson is the ignorant, brutal landlord of 9 Mill Street and Gustine’s pimp. He’s a pretty despicable character and it’s not easy to muster much empathy for the man but Holman avoids making him a cardboard villain.Pink: Pink is the eight-year-old daughter of Robinson, called so because she has conjunctivitis, and her reddened eyes constantly weep tears and pus.The story is told in a gently sardonic, third-person omniscient voice that we learn toward the end is the collective voice of the dead poor who fill the paupers’ graves of Sunderland’s churches.I enjoyed the book. Perhaps because – despite it’s depressing subject and depraved plot – hope remains. Gustine and The Eye achieve epiphanies of understanding and compassion that lift them above the self-centeredness and/or apathy of their neighbors. There’s no happy ending but they are better people for what they’ve endured.The only false note I found in Holman’s Gustine comes in the final pages in the final confrontation between Gustine and Chiver. Gustine’s baby has died from the cholera, and Chiver has stolen his body from the cemetery. Gustine has come to his house looking for the body and is in the process of trashing the home when the following exchange occurs:“‘If it were for the greater good, I would so willingly,’ he says.‘The greater good?’ Gustine shrugs. ‘Good and Evil are opposite points on a circle, Dr. Chiver. Greater good is just halfway back to Bad.’” (p. 266)I don’t have a problem believing that an uneducated, fifteen-year-old girl could intuitively grasp such a concept but I don’t think an uneducated, fifteen-year-old girl could express it so eloquently and assuredly. In this case, I think the author’s voice displaced the authentic voice of her character. But aside from that minor discordance, I very much liked The Dress Lodger and would recommend it.
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