After first discovering Laura Purcell’s precise skill for crafting unsettling and foreboding Gothic tension in The Silent Companions, I was excited to read her third novel Bone China. Bone China follows housemaid and nurse Hester Why as she joins Morvoren House, an imposing abode atop the cliffs of Cornwall, and its peculiar and withdrawn mistress Miss Pinecroft. As Hester learns of the strange household dynamic and superstitious nature of the residents, she must also keep her own secrets of her blighted past.
The story is told across three timelines, with the majority of the narrative flitting between the present Hester Why at Morvoren House and the past Hester – truly called Ester Stevens – and the dark tragedy which terminated her previous position in London. The final strand follows the younger years of Miss Louise Pinecroft before she was silent and wracked by superstition; forty years prior to Hester’s arrival, Dr Pinecroft, with Louise acting as his assistant, moved to Cornwall to perfect a revolutionary new cure for tuberculosis, then known as consumption, which had ravaged the rest of their family, using prisoners as test subjects.
Hester flees London for Cornwall, quickly facing a moral dilemma when an accident befalls one of the passengers on her coach, deciding between helping the injured man and risk being conspicuous or leaving him in the hands of an incapable quack doctor, a man who considers that Hester, even with her proficient nursing skills, must be inferior to him in her knowledge of medicine. Once she arrives at the imposing Morvoren House, Hester must conceal her increasing alcoholism as a coping mechanism for the tragedy in London, while tending to Miss Pinecroft, who sits daily in the cold room silently watching the china. Her mistress isn’t the only peculiar resident at Morvoren House; the servants possess a fervent belief in Cornish folk tales of the faerie people, superstitions fanned by Creeda, a maid in charge of Miss Pinecroft’s ward, Rosewyn. Creeda imposes her rituals to ward off the “little people” from stealing Rosewyn away and replacing her with a changeling. Although Hester dismisses this behaviour as local fantasy, she begins to notice strange occurrences that are more difficult to dismiss, such as doors being unlocked impossibly at night.
Forty years earlier, Louise Pinecroft and her father, a doctor, move to Morvoren House after tuberculosis has killed the rest of their family. Dr Pinecroft is determined to recover his professional reputation and ease his mourning by finding an elusive cure for tuberculosis, with his latest experiment involving the use of local prisoners as test subjects. The colony are installed in the caves by the Cornish coast to feel the benefits of the sea air; sea bathing and fresh air were recommended treatments for various ailments during the Victorian era, and Purcell’s details on Pinecroft’s research was influenced by real life cases from the time. Purcell utilises the pragmatic perspective of Louise to contrast the “romantic” notion of death by consumption popularised in the Romantic literary era with the cruel reality of death by a disease which was little understood by scientists until a cure was found in the late nineteenth century. As Louise becomes closer with one of the patients, she also tries to bridge the emotional distance between herself and her father, instead finding him increasingly obsessed with the idea that the patients are changelings, thoughts which are stoked by the strange young Creeda.
The novel has an overtly Du Maurier influence, with the setting of Cornwall and Morvoren House both acting as silent characters in the novel, foreboding portents of unhappiness and doom. Morvoren House is described as “a gloomy castle straight from the pages of Mrs Radcliffe’s novels” and it stands “sentinel on the crest of the cliff, braving the elements with stern indifference”. There is an almost nihilistic predestination to the events of the three narratives, with omens of tragedy from images in the patterns in the porcelain to the ripple effects of events once set in motion. Ill-fortune plagues both the women.
Both Hester and Louise transgress from the traditional roles of women in the Victorian era and Purcell effectively interrogates the domestic space as insidiously threatening. Hester is wary of her fellow servants in both London and at Morvoren House, arguably because harbours secrets about her past and an addiction gin and laudanum, and Louise’s efforts to fulfill her new responsibilities as mistress of a new household after her mother’s death are often thwarted. Louise is on the precipice between the masculine public sphere of medicine and the feminine private world of the home; she admires her father’s medical reputation and assists in his work with no public recognition as it would not have been possible for Louise to become a doctor, but likewise her dedication to her father’s work puts her at physical risk from disease but also halts her fulfillment of “perfect femininity” in marriage and motherhood. Louise transgresses from this patriarchal notion of model femininity in many ways, choosing knowledge – both intellectual and carnal and rejecting the mold of femininity imposed on her by society and her father. The titular bone china is an emblem of this realm; tea services were used predominantly by ladies of society and fragile beautiful items used only in social gatherings. However, the porcelain’s morbid ingredients included bone ash, and it was a symbol not only of high society, but of the consumption of the industrial revolution.
Purcell’s research into the Cornish faerie folklore is exemplary; she creates a rich tapestry of local legend and weaves these unsettling images of changelings stripping it back from the layers of modern fairy imagery to something more cruel and terrifying. Purcell explores the idea of changelings, faerie children left in place of a stolen human child carried off to the fae realm, linking it to both motherhood and the ubiquity and futility of death; changelings were often used as a way of understanding or reconciling health complications during birth such as miscarriage, stillbirth, disease, or disability. In adults, changelings were often used as a justification of abuse towards the mentally ill, and tuberculosis was sometimes blamed on fairies.
Bone China, like Purcell’s other works, creates a truly foreboding atmosphere with a firm sense of place and a historical era. Purcell considers the work a Gothic romance, and the novel strengths lie in the haunting backdrop of Morvoren House and the threatening Cornish coast, as well as the focus on two women in unfamiliar domestic spaces among strange residents. The historical details are well-researched, such as the heady delve into Cornish folklore and the morbid origins of bone china. The character of Creeda was unnerving, with the reader never quite sure if she was a friend or foe to the protagonists, and the tension of the plot’s many mysteries was well-executed. Purcell is adept at creating spine-tingling images that will haunt me even long after I close the book.
I am enthusiastic about multiple perspective narratives, split into uneven shards resembling a shattered plate, according to Purcell. However, I felt that the strands didn’t quite come together, with the ending feeling abrupt and rushed. The pacing of the novel is inconsistent; the dazzling tension and mystery of the novel’s beginning is offset by several revolutions occurring late in the narrative and the book’s plot galloping towards its conclusion, without enough time spent with certain characters for the reader to empathise with them. Several plot elements felt like narrative necessities rather than in keeping with the character’s behaviours, with many intrigues or character developments materialising off-page. Furthermore, while the Cornish folklore was well-explored, I was expecting the faeries to be a more menacing and concrete presence in the novel.
Inconsistent pacing and multiple narrative strands which don’t effectively come together at the novel’s climax mean that Purcell’s ambitious project doesn’t quite hit the mark. However, Bone China is a great addition to the Gothic canon, with an intriguing setting, vivid imagery, and tension woven through gorgeous prose which speak to the wider themes and wealth of research that went into the novel.