What Empty Things Are These
In this Victorian novel, there are few good men, and they barely speak. Adelaide Hadley lives an upper middle-class existence: decent food, good clothes, and regular humiliation. Mr. George Hadley is a contemporary of her father who wed her in her debut season. But when George has a stroke after taking his walking stick to Adelaide for having the impudence to read a novel, Adelaide is forced to see that the world will change its shape.
What Empty Things Are These is about power. Adelaide has accepted her lot—she was not allowed to raise her own baby and does not know her twelve-year-old son. She attends the dinners she must, plays piano and sings for guests, acts as both ornament and punching bag, but never as a helpmeet. As Adelaide’s sister reminds her, “One does as one ought.” To further add insult, Mr. Hadley regularly rapes her lady’s maid, who also is powerless to object.
After Mr. Hadley’s stroke, Adelaide begins to adventure (in her small ways) and take charge of the household like never before. She stumbles across a young street girl carrying a baby and believes the infant to be stolen. Asserting her newfound power, she takes the baby to a police station. Only after unsettling encounters with the father does she begin to doubt her actions. Like the men in this story, she has forever altered a woman’s life without consult.
This is a quiet book. Action often takes place off the page, told later through Adelaide’s filter. She can often feel unreliable, as her lack of self-esteem undermines her actions. But there are gems of prose dropped like “The loss of love can leave a person folded, packed into a tight, arms wrapped parcel,” which make it a lovely, if sometimes psychologically stifling, book—not unlike a corset.