Crimson is blood and white is bone. This is the defining image of the claustrophobic relationship between Pre-Raphaelite painter Francis Maybrick Gill and the prostitute Annie Stride whom Francis saves from a suicide attempt at Waterloo Bridge. Annie is in despair after the suicide of her friend, Mary-Anne. Mary-Anne’s voice is heard in flash-back at the beginning of each chapter, a narrative device which adds vivid contrast between the lives of the prostitutes and the opulence of Francis’s house.
Francis is an intriguingly ambiguous figure. At first, like Annie, we admire his generosity and high-mindedness. Though she shows willing, he does not touch her. It seems he wishes to raise her from the gutter, to educate her so that she will not have to return to the streets. Yet, there is a sense of unease as the story unfolds. This is where the suspense and tension increase – no murders, no highly wrought drama, just a growing feeling of oppression and confinement which keeps the reader gripped.
We are not sure what Francis wants of the beautiful Annie. He paints her obsessively in a series of paintings of legendary fallen women: Annie is Eve, Jezebel, Rehab, the Harlot of Jericho, Lucrece and more. Lizzie Siddal, Rossetti’s model, tells her: ‘They all want you to be someone else.’
But, who is Annie Stride? Is Francis’s message meant to champion these women, to cast them as victims, or is Annie cast as one of them? Even the pictures themselves, although apparently brilliant, are somehow over-rich with their jewel colours, their heavy velvets and gems and always the dead animals. Francis lays the ground with white, made of bone, an intriguing link to the novel’s title, and significant later; Annie is painted as The Girl with the White Camellias in a stained gown. The scent of the camellias Francis has in his house sicken Annie for they are, she thinks, sweet and deadly. Corruption is in the air.
Francis is also a curiously isolated figure; he exhibits the paintings of Annie with spectacular success at the Royal Academy. There is conversation with John Ruskin and acclaim from other academicians. Annie, the model, is the toast of the town yet Francis and Annie remain mostly alone, other than visits to the theatre and other society events where they never seem to socialise. Francis, it seems, has no close friends. This is another aspect of the sense that these two are locked into something which will eventually prove destructive.
Two visitors to the house, about whom Francis lies, precipitate a move to Florence, and later to Venice, both cities beautifully evoked in the poetic language – the description of Venice recalling Fiorato’s novel The Glassblower of Murano. In Florence, a stranger called the colourman arrives at the Villa Camellia, providing Francis with the pigments for his paints. He, too, is not what he seems but he is the means of making Annie look at Francis differently. She gets to know the colourman on equal terms; she realises that she does not know Francis at all. It is at the Villa Camellia that Francis’s dark secrets are revealed in a dramatic denouement.
However, for this reviewer, several glaring anachronisms rather spoilt the whole. It is a Pygmalion story with a dark heart, but though it opens in 1853, Annie and Francis go to see Shaw’s Pygmalion which was first performed in 1913; Annie sets out to improve her voice by listening to gramophone records – the playback of sound was not achieved until 1877; they go to the theatre to see Adelaide Neilson in Measure for Measure – Adelaide Neilson was born in 1847. What a pity these were not picked up.
Nevertheless, this is a gripping tale in which the poetic language and images match the theme of art and darkness.
Jean Briggs taught English for many years in schools in Cheshire, Hong Kong and Lancashire. She now lives in a cottage in Cumbria. The Murder of Patience Brooke, published by The History Press in August 2014, is her first novel, featuring Charles Dickens as a detective. The latest in the series, Murder by Ghostlight, is out now.