Review: The Mesmerist by Barbara Ewing (for hagsharlotsheroines)
by Faye L Booth
Rated "PG13" by the Author.
edited: Friday, May 25, 2007
Posted: Friday, May 25, 2007
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Book review - Faye L. Booth reviews The Mesmerist by Barbara Ewing, published in hardback by Sphere, £18.99
What is more shocking – female sexuality or murder? To most people nowadays the answer is obvious, but to the aristocracy at the dawn of the Victorian era, the matter was not quite so clear-cut.
In The Mesmerist, Barbara Ewing introduces the reader to Cordelia Preston, an actress in her mid-forties who is struggling to find roles in the theatre now that she has outgrown the famous ‘romantic heroine’ parts. Brought up working class by her mother, also an actress, and her Aunt Hester, a mesmerist, Cordelia has no wealth to fall back on when her theatrical work begins to dwindle, and so after a late-night drinking session with her closest friend and fellow actress, the wonderfully-named Amaryllis (‘Rillie’) Spoons, Cordelia hits upon the idea of following in her aunt’s footsteps.
Studying Hester’s books and phrenology model, Cordelia teaches herself the skills of both mesmerism and phrenology, and sets herself up as a ‘phreno-mesmerist’, with Rillie as her assistant. Business takes off well (the sentiments quoted in a newspaper article read by Cordelia give us a clue as to why: No, no, not doctors with these new stethoscopes asking me to undo buttons. I like to see a mesmerist, he will advise me what is wrong without touching me), and it soon becomes apparent that the young women who come to Cordelia with their fiancés seeking advice on their compatibility have some questions of their own.
Cordelia’s down-to-earth background means that the sexual naiveté of the upper classes is almost as much of a culture shock to her as it is to the reader. Many of the soon-to-be-wed girls who consult her have little to no idea of the Gentle Intricacies of the Wedding Night, as Cordelia terms it, (one young woman is appalled by the ‘deformity’ in her suitor which becomes evident whenever they embrace), and Cordelia’s role becomes part-sex therapist, part-agony aunt as she tries to enlighten them in advance, and prevent them from suffering emotional trauma at the end of their big day.
This is not a popular approach; in fact, it’s considered rather illicit. Add to this the existing fears about mesmerism – that it could be used to corrupt mind and morality (a concern that we as a society do not appear to have lost: think of the disquiet that still frequently exists around those who have an understanding of the human mind and its workings), that it conflicts with the narrow religious views of the time (it was considered God’s role to relieve distress and chronic pain; not a mesmerist’s), and the concerns raised by the notion of two women operating a successful business by themselves, and the grounds for impending controversy become clear.
But studying the psychological traumas and fears of others digs up the pain of Cordelia’s own past also. A cruel betrayal by a former lover has separated her for many years from her children, and the more she immerses herself in the vulnerable side of the mind, the less she can deny her own long-buried sadness.
Then her former lover is murdered, and all the controversies of Cordelia’s life come together in a spectacularly public fashion…
The Mesmerist is a thoroughly absorbing read, and keeps you turning the pages. Those who regret the infrequency with which slightly older heroines appear in the historical fiction genre should enjoy this, as Cordelia and Rille fill the gap beautifully, without being clichéd ‘middle-aged women’. Ewing vividly captures the shift from the decadent, dramatic 18th century to the more reserved and cerebral 19th, and provides us with a lively cast of supporting characters, including two particularly memorable eccentric old ladies; Rille’s mother Mrs Spoons, who takes her clothes off when in company, and her friend Regina, who is fixated on the gory murders found in the penny papers of the time.
Vibrant, convincing and powerful, The Mesmerist is well worth checking out.