The Madwoman’s Coat

Written by Ian Reid
Review by Marina Maxwell

In 1897 in an asylum in Fremantle, Western Australia, a patient is found murdered. Although there is a likely suspect, the investigating police officers are not so sure. Who would want the reclusive Isabella Trent dead? And why has she been secretly embroidering an old coat with strange patterns and motifs? What is the meaning of the unfinished stitched phrase, “Isabella Lucy Gud …”?

The story flashes back to 1880 in Leek (Staffordshire) and London when the talents of young seamstress Lucy Malpass are spotted. She trains at the Royal School of Art Needlework and is absorbed into the coterie surrounding the famous William Morris. His daughter May becomes her best friend, and Lucy is drawn to the newly formed Socialist League, encountering many of the artists and thinkers of the day, such as Burne-Jones and George Bernard Shaw.

The fictional male characters are typically Victorian, but in her relationships with them, Lucy shows herself to be a tetchy, cold woman who drives away those who want to be closer to her. To reveal more – and especially her link to the murdered Isabella – would require spoilers, save to say that an episode in her past that is hinted at but only fully revealed in the closing chapter helps to explain her behaviour.

The prose contains all the moral questioning and conundrums that have become the hallmark of this author’s works and is not unlike embroidery itself in its twists, knots and flourishes, with Lucy being “bound with wiry stitching to every misfortune, every injustice and every bitter irony that had disfigured her life.”

Although Lucy may tax the reader’s level of sympathy at times, the novel is a thought-proving examination of a woman who was a victim not just of her own failings, but also her time and place.