Pestilence, Putrefaction and Prostitution
Turn the pages of The Dress Lodger and you're turning the dial on a time machine. Destination: England, 1831.
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 dark 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 crone is paid by Gustine's pimp to "keep an eye" on her as 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 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 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 like the horror-movie virgin who survives to the final reel but still insists on walking into the dark house, calling, "Hello? Is anybody in here?"
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.