As Queen Victoria comes to the throne, the mysterious Mrs. Cordelia du Pont begins her meteoric rise to fame and fortune as a lady Phreno-Mesmerist. Although her career begins as a money-making scam hatched by two aging and out-of-work actresses, Cordelia Preston (aka Mrs. du Pont) and Amaryllis Spoons, things soon take a darker and more serious turn. Cordelia’s success is challenged by a painful past which threatens to overwhelm her, and what began as her last, great theatrical role gradually becomes real as she discovers in herself a genuine talent for mesmerism. The foundation of her popular success, however, is the advice she gives to young ladies of good breeding about “the gentle intricacies of the wedding night”. When a member of high society is brutally murdered in Bloomsbury Square, Cordelia’s past comes back to haunt her with dramatic results.
As with all her fiction, Ewing uses historical stories to address issues of continuing relevance – women’s rights, the balance of power between the sexes and, in this novel, the debate between conventional and alternative medicine, and the pernicious power of the gutter press. This is a much stronger novel than Ewing’s previous book, Rosetta, perhaps because it is set almost entirely in London. Ewing writes with great verve and confidence about 19th century London, bringing its crowds and smells and dank basements wonderfully to life. As an actress herself, Ewing also shows a sure hand when describing the theatre of the time.
A gripping and entertaining read. Recommended.