Reviewed by Linda Rimel
LINDA RIMEL is an author and playwright.
1887 is Queen Victoria’s Jubilee year. Socialists and unemployed people clash with police. The Irish agitate for autonomy. Oscar Wilde and Bernard Shaw are cultural forces. A tabloid press is emerging, as are the forerunners of the Labour Party.
It is also the year that Buffalo Bill’s Wild West arrives in London. Londoners are mad for cowboys and Indians.
Clare Clark doesn’t blandly state these things in “Beautiful Lies,” the novel she has set in 1887 London. They are integral to the plot. The story concerns Maribel, wife of Scottish aristocrat and fiery member of Parliament Edward Campbell Lowe, whose political life Clark bases on that of Robert Cunningham Graham.
Graham’s wife had a secret past, lost to history. The novel consists of the story Clark invents for Maribel, a sometime poet. Rather than have all the tension hinge on keeping Maribel’s past from her husband — in an era so inflexible that the publisher of a birth control book loses custody of her children and homosexuals are sentenced to hard labor — Clark takes the less obvious course of having Edward already know most of his wife’s past. He has helped construct her alibi.
In forgoing the obvious, easy melodrama, Clark allows herself to pursue a nuanced story.
Maribel’s interest in photography puts her into contact with those who see proof of life beyond death in the indistinct images that seem to hover near the intended subjects in some photographs. Spiritualism in that era was a topic that divided believers from nonbelievers, but not, as in our time, because people who sought contact with the dead were accused of Satanism. Clark gets it right when she has Victorian Christians defend Spiritualism and skeptics and atheists disparage it.
“You may call it folly,” retorts a Spiritualist. “I call it faith. It is fashionable to deride matters of faith these days, especially in political circles, but when the ignorant and the cynical dismiss new schools of study as no more than cheap subjects for sarcasm, I call it bigotry. It is like the Hindu prince who denied the existence of ice because water, in his experience, never became solid. It is one thing to demand rational proof, quite another to disbelieve everything outside one’s own limited realm of experience.”
Clark is no less accurate in her dialogue. Why do her London characters use “umbrella” exclusively, never “bumbershoot”? Because the latter term wasn’t used until nine years after 1887. Maribel’s friend says that she’d thought that ghosts “were your thing.” What?! Is the friend that rare Victorian who’s been to Woodstock? No. The expression is said to date from 1841.
Clark has done her homework, but that’s not all that commends this fascinating book. The story resolves itself naturally partly because Clark expands its scope beyond Maribel’s secret.
Maribel is married to a flamboyant and passionate champion of the downtrodden (to his admirers) or a disgraceful rabble-rouser (to his foes in Parliament and the press). After his arrest on Bloody Sunday, Maribel has calling cards printed, announcing that she will be receiving visitors at Bow Street Police Court.
There are public stenches, private hypocrisies, children’s games and financial straits. The only newspaper editor allied with Edward’s politics targets his personal life. Ultimately, Edward and Maribel cope not through extraordinary means or even Maribel’s writing “career” but by assessing their priorities and applying themselves.
Again Bill Cody hires real Indians to dress, act and whoop like fake Indians. This time Maribel declines to photograph them.
Edward points out that the Indians are “Standing Bull’s men. Real-life prisoners of war.”
Or, she wonders, are they merely “players in a flagrantly fictionalised version of their lives”?
“Aren’t we all?” Edward replies.