“The bitter October weather had not prevented the swelling numbers of destitute men and women sleeping rough in Trafalgar Square, and, under pressure from the Tory newspapers who condemned the situation as a disgrace to the capital, Warren had drastically stepped up police efforts to keep them out. For weeks his officers had been carrying out a campaign of harassment and summary arrest. As the weather worsened, the skirmishes in the square had grown more belligerent and the number of arrests had spiralled.”
Clare Clark, Beautiful Lies
It’s the Queen’s Jubilee year. The economy is in recession. Many are unemployed or their wages are so low that they are barely subsisting. There are protests and riots in London. Terrorism is an ever-present threat. Sex scandals are front-page news, but this is not 2012. Victoria, not Elizabeth II, is celebrating her Jubilee. This is London, 1887, and the tensions between the government and defenders of free speech will culminate in the tragedy of (the first) Bloody Sunday.
The heroine of Beautiful Lies, Maribel, is married to Edward, a radical Liberal MP who campaigns for causes such as ending child labour in coal mines and limiting the working day to eight hours. If he is to retain the backing of his party, Edward needs to lead a respectable life with a suitable partner. Maribel appears to be a respectable woman from Chile, the child of a Spanish mother and a French father, but over the course of the novel her embroidered past unravels. Clark cleverly shows how Maribel’s lies contain elements of the truth.
Through three books (The Great Stink, The Nature of Monsters and now Beautiful Lies), Clare Clark has become one of my favourite historical novelists, alongside Andrew Miller, Hilary Mantel and Sarah Waters. As stomach-turning as it is, The Great Stink (about the engineering feat of overhauling London’s sewer system) is the most evocative and suspenseful of the three Clare Clark novels I’ve read, but there is much to enjoy in Beautiful Lies.
Clark has used the lives of Gabriela de la Balmondière, her husband Robert Bontine Cunningham Graham and the journalist William Thomas Stead as the inspiration for her latest novel. This introduces so many themes and issues that they threaten to weigh Beautiful Lies down: photography as a protean art, the treatment of American Indians after European invasion, industrialisation and the labour movement, nascent Socialism and Marxism and its influence on artists and writers such as William Morris, family secrets and separations, Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West show, Irish Home Rule, the Spiritualist movement and fraud, the creation of the tabloid press …
At points I thought, “Clark has pointed us to several of Chekhov’s narrative ‘guns’ hanging on the wall: Maribel’s past and the threat it poses to Edward’s career, the journalist’s prurient interest in scandal, the increasing possibility that Edward will lose his life in the political struggle, the danger that Maribel’s family will expose her if the journalist doesn’t, Edward’s debt-ridden inheritance, etc. When will one of them go off?” Clare Clark does, however, manage all of these elements skillfully.
One of the things that makes the Victorian era so interesting to read about (yes!) is that it was a turbulent period full of charged events, social upheaval and powerful personalities. (If you don’t believe me, read Matthew Sweet’s Inventing the Victorians). The modern world was being born. With one of the novels I’m working on, I get a bit over-excited about trying to include all the inter-related social and technological upheavals; I’ll have to rein this in. I think Clare Clark may have grappled a little with the same thing, but with far more skill. There were some repetitions and typos that made me suspect that the book had been rushed through the editorial process to be published as close to the 2012 Jubilee as possible, doing the author a disservice.
By comparison with The Great Stink, whose chief protagonist is male, Beautiful Lies seems slower in pace and has less dramatic tension. I feel that in a Victorian-era setting, having a female protagonist is a disadvantage. Maribel does a lot of worrying and waiting. The stakes are high, but her fears are usually worse than the outcome. (How cruel we readers are; we often want the story to end happily, but not without some setbacks and heartbreak for tension’s sake.) As the story gathered momentum, however, and I got caught up in Maribel’s world, I was gripped.
I have expressed some reservations but I suspect that this is a book I will come back to and savour again. Since finishing Clare Clark’s novel, nothing on my to-be-read pile has seemed satisfactory. I took up two other books only to abandon them, because they could not match Beautiful Lies. And that is the mark of a good book.