08 November 2007

The Mesmerist (Barbara Ewing )

Barbara Ewing’s The Mesmerist is a rich piece of historical fiction cloaked in crimson velvet curtains, redolent of heavy stage makeup and heavier perfume, and tasting faintly of old-fashioned steak-and-kidney pie sweetened with a touch of port. It is, in a word, delicious.

Set in early nineteenth-century London, the story begins on the cheap wooden stage of a dingy local theatre, moves into a candle-lit, star-bedecked Bloomsbury basement and culminates in a crowded coroner’s court – tempered along the way by mad old ladies, stoic gentlemen, chamber-pots and copious cups of restorative tea.

The Mesmerist is Miss Cordelia Preston, a forty-something actress with great theatrical talent, a sharp instinct and a solid sense of the surreal – but no acting work. Bolstered by her friend, Amaryllis Spoons, Cordelia launches a ‘phreno-mesmerism’ business – and to the distant strains of Rillie’s flute, makes a success of examining the shape of clients’ skulls, advising betrothed couples on their mutual suitability and gently guiding skittish young women as to what to expect of the conjugal bed.

It’s more common-sense than the supernatural, says Cordelia, “[w]’re not making it up; it just is!”, but in no time at all, her hard-won achievements bring limelight, and with limelight comes curiosity, catastrophe, murder and infamy. Yes, The Mesmerist has it all, served warm in a thick and thoroughly satisfying plot.


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