The Dress Lodger

by Sheri Holman

Published by Atlantic Monthly Press

291 pages, 2000

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The Body Trade

Reviewed by Frederick Zackel


I love Gustine. She is already one of my favorite characters in popular fiction. An underfed, 15-year-old illiterate street urchin and the mother of a 4-month-old infant, Gustine has spent her last two years in Sunderland, England, as a "dress lodger" -- a prostitute who rents a beautiful dress to attract a better class of clientele. I love her because she is all heart.

The narrator of Sheri Holman's new historical thriller, The Dress Lodger, describes the girl in greater detail:

Oh, hers is a more Gaulish beauty... with delicate arching brows, a reasonably straight nose, and large, dark, almost navy blue eyes. Her slightly sunken cheeks are drizzled with light freckles -- hereditary, you would wager, for surely freckles coaxed out by a pleasant day at the shore would not sit so starkly against white skin. And she is very pale. Her face and exposed arms are the color of cooling milk, faintly blue in the bucket; they possess the sort of pallor that scatters light, the sort of luminescence that great ladies, it is rumored, take small tastes of arsenic to achieve. Hers is the skin of a girl who never sees the light of day.

Gustine is a fixture of Sunderland's evening streets in 1831, most familiar for her fancy blue dress that seems at once inviting and rather intimidating. "She is a sumptuous, fantastical wedding cake," the novel's narrator tells us. "A walking confection. A tasty morsel. And yet, still you hesitate. Certainly no one other than the finest lady might afford such a singular dress."

But it is not only men who follow Gustine's progress. This fantastic creature is also watched closely by a shadow: an older, "turnip-fleshed woman" known as "the Eye." Set upon Gustine's heels by Whilky Robinson, her pimp and landlord (as well as the owner of the blue finery in which Gustine rents herself), the Eye is supposed to make sure Gustine doesn't cheat Whilky, as his previous dress lodger did. Children make fun on this hag and adults joke about how she came to be one-eyed. (According to Holman's bemused narrator, "People used to believe she sold her eye to the Devil for a bottle of gin, but now the dominant theory is that she had it gored out by a wild pig while making water on the town moor.") When it comes to keeping track of Gustine, though, the Eye is uncommonly skilled. This, we're told, can be credited primarily to the power of her remaining visual organ, "a single gray carbuncle that has, over the years, siphoned from her four other senses every bit of potency, redirected the diffuse sensations of sound and touch and even smell straight forward into a single supreme ability; into an Eye so aware, so magnified it never tires, needs no sleep, misses nothing. No one may steal an apple but the Eye sees it."

Sunderland, a shipbuilding town in the northeast corner of England, is a brutally hard place to live in 1831. Like Gustine, the narrator purrs, "half the girls in Sunderland have sold their bodies at some time to put food on the table or to keep their families from the workhouse." For residents lucky enough to have a job, work lasts at least 12 hours a day, six days a week, 52 weeks a year. To provide for her sickly -- and nameless -- son, Gustine not only plays the harlot, but works half of each day carrying 60-pound wedges of sodden clay on her head in a pottery factory. As if this weren't misery enough, Sunderland is being menaced by an epidemic of river frogs and is soon to become infamous as "the first town in Britain stricken with cholera."

Holman rightly calls cholera "a pilgrim," for this disease of the small intestine has historically accompanied travelers -- especially sailors, like those who made up such a large portion of Sunderland's 19th-century population. Globally, there have been seven great cholera epidemics (the first one dating back to 1817), with their mortality rates reaching as high as 70 per cent. In The Dress Lodger, the author transports us to that moment in time just before cholera jumps ship at Sunderland, slithers through the quarantine and plants its infectious kisses upon the healthy. And she makes Gustine an unwitting instrument of the infection's transmission.

One Saturday night, after Gustine has pulled a trick beneath her town's Iron Bridge, she and the Eye discover a corpse, whose "wide sightless eyes are turned upstream, watching for ships trapped on the far side of the Quarantine." Gustine sees this not as a terror or a tragedy, but rather as an opportunity. It seems she has struck a grim bargain with a local surgeon: In exchange for his ministering to her son, who has a rare anatomical defect, Gustine will find him dead bodies for dissection purposes.

The physician's name is Henry Chiver. He's a 32-year-old anatomist who, two years earlier, fled his home in Edinburgh, Scotland, after being implicated in the scandal surrounding William Burke and William Hare. To those with a memory for history's seamier side, real-life figures Burke and Hare stand out for their "body snatching" efforts on behalf of Britain's medical professionals. Prior to this pair's exploits (and before Parliament passed a law permitting doctors to obtain corpses legally), "resurrectionists" would supply physicians with unearthed corpses -- for the right price. Medical students would then "have a body upon which to learn the art of kidney stone removal, of suturing, of speedy amputation, so they might save lives. No one liked it," Holman writes in The Dress Lodger, "but the system had been in place for well over a hundred years." Where Burke and Hare went wrong was that, not only did they dig up graves, they also committed 18 murders in order to keep up with the demand for cadavers. Hare eventually fled and survived; Burke was convicted of murder and hanged. His body was (ironically) donated to medical research.

When we first encounter Dr. Chiver, he is in exile with his uncle, an established Sunderland surgeon. Chiver is busily trying to jump-start his brilliant career through the study of diseases of the heart, yet remains fearful of both the law and the public mob. "He's immersed himself in teaching," the narrator explains, "helped his uncle in these anxious cholera-expectant times, even found a moment to get engaged" to an idealistic young woman named Audrey Place.

However, the surgeon continues to risk his career -- and his freedom from incarceration -- by illicitly teaching human anatomy. Chiver's four students have paid handsomely for their surreptitious opportunities to practice on human cadavers. But the doctor has been having a devil of a time locating bodies on the local black market. (Not surprisingly, since the poor resent the remains of their recently departed kin being collected for dissection classes.) In a drunken stupor one night, he meets Gustine and confesses to her his needs and fears. She agrees to help -- not realizing that this complicity will put her and her child at mortal risk and ultimately force the young prostitute to turn for help to the last person she might expect to give it.

In The Dress Lodger, Sheri Holman prowls the same territory that Robert Louis Stevenson did in his 1881 short story, "The Body Snatcher," and that Dylan Thomas prowled in his 1954 movie script, "The Doctor and the Devils." But Holman is not merely recycling old formulas. Nor does she set out merely to confound her readers. There are no Twilight Zone trick endings in The Dress Lodger. Holman's novel is a study of two principal characters in conflict with the world around them, each on her or his own quest, those quests finally conflicting with one another.

Gustine is this story's true hero, a social chameleon who is also adept at finding the vulnerabilities in men. With the wisdom she's learned from the mean streets, she seems an unstoppable force, not at all the naïf her nighttime clients think they are borrowing for their back-alley romps. But Holman introduces us to some marvelous secondary players as well, among them Whilky Robinson, Gustine's landlord. He considers himself a sensitive man because, after determining that the view from his boardinghouse toward a nearby slaughterhouse "was troubling to some of his tenderhearted tenants," Whilky "took it upon himself personally to board up all the offending windows." Found elsewhere in these pages is Pink, Whilky's 6-year-old daughter, who in this era before child labor laws is considered "too daft to be sent out to work," so instead winds up babysitting Gustine's child. There's also Fos, who "glows in the dark" and is slowly dying from a lifetime of work painting poisonous phosphorus on matchsticks. And then, of course, there is the 70-ish Eye, Whilky's faithful retainer, whose first taste of work was as a 9-year-old girl working 13-hour shifts "in total darkness" deep inside a coal mine.

Another of Holman's most important characters is Sunderland itself. She casts it as a lurid place of casual cruelty and disastrous ignorance, where death is a constant companion. The local publican "sweetens" his wine "with a little packet of grayish-red oxidized lead got off the chemist. He knows he stands a chance of poisoning half his clientele, but most of them drink beer, so he doesn't sweat it." The proprietor of the pawnshop -- whose back room doubles as a riverside morgue -- sells the clothes off unclaimed corpses, after she's gone through all the pockets. And if she doesn't try too hard to find the next of kin, she can "earn a pretty penny" from the physician who fills out the death certificate... and takes the corpses off her hands.

More than a few of the town's destitute and downtrodden "don't believe in the cholera," thinking "it's the Government's way of murdering the poor." Yet all the while, the contagion waits just offshore for the first sailor to jump ship and row into town, spreading sickness and sorrow in his wake.

I should point out, finally, that the bemused narrator of The Dress Lodger (whose true identity is only revealed near the end of the reader's journey) is well worth observing. That omniscient voice almost caresses the actors in this drama with love and understanding. A precise choice of words shows the narrator's love of language, too. When speaking of the markets set up along Sunderland's quays, for instance, we're told that "not everyone is dishonest, but nearly every merchant prefers to sell his wares after dark when their imperfections are softened by candlelight and men's eyes are less discerning after a full day's work."

Sheri Holman (who also wrote the 1997 medieval mystery, A Stolen Tongue) demonstrates an attention to detail that helps make The Dress Lodger an entrancing read. Her writing is like a rain forest of adverbs and adjectives, a hearty meal for most Americans who have been weaned on the skim milk of Stephen Crane, Ernest Hemingway and Raymond Carver. And Holman has a beautifully ribald sense of humor. In a publishing world that's filled with slick but predictable thrillers, confessionals from mindless celebrities and honeyed manure from political animals, The Dress Lodger marks a return to Dickensian writing. This novel is a joy to read, to luxuriate within. | March 2000


Frederick Zackel is a contributing editor of January Magazine.