Hester Why, the narrator of Laura Purcell’s latest gothic novel Bone China, is a woman with secrets. We know that Hester Why is not her real name, but what is the reason for her new identity? Why is she fleeing to Cornwall from London, who is she hiding from and how did she come to be addicted to gin and laudanum? These are questions we ask ourselves in the very first chapter and they are answered eventually, but first we must follow Hester to Morvoren House, perched high on the Cornish cliffs, where she is taking up a new position as nurse to Miss Louise Pinecroft.
Hester quickly discovers that her job is not going to be easy and soon she is asking questions of her own. What is wrong with Miss Pinecroft, who barely moves, never speaks and spends her days sitting in a cold room surrounded by china cups and plates? Who is Rosewyn, the strange, child-like young woman described as Miss Pinecroft’s ward? Is there any truth behind the claims of the superstitious servant Creeda that Rosewyn needs to be protected from fairies who are trying to steal her away and replace her with a changeling?
Bone China moves between three different timelines; as well as following Hester at Morvoren House, we also go back to an earlier time in her life, when she was known as Esther Stevens, and learn what went wrong in her previous employment, leading to her decision to run away and start again. Finally, in a third narrative we meet Louise Pinecroft as she was forty years earlier, when she and her father first arrived at Morvoren House after losing the rest of their family to consumption.
Laura Purcell has become known for writing dark, creepy Victorian novels and Bone China does have a lot of classic Gothic elements, including a gloomy, imposing clifftop house, family secrets and hints of madness. Despite this, I didn’t think this was a particularly scary or chilling story and although the exploration of Cornish folklore added atmosphere, I never doubted that the fairies and changelings existed only in legends and in Creeda’s stories. How much more spine-tingling it would have been if I had found myself feeling convinced that they could be real after all!
What I did find very disturbing and unsettling was the storyline set in Louise Pinecroft’s younger days, describing the work of her father, a doctor, who is looking for a cure for consumption (tuberculosis), the disease which took the lives of his wife and his other children. With Louise’s help, Dr Pinecroft carries out a revolutionary experiment, taking a group of prisoners who are suffering from the illness and lodging them in a cave beneath the cliffs where he claims the salty sea air will be good for their health. This part of the book was based on historical fact – cave air really was suggested as a possible cure for consumption at one time – and it was horrifying to read about the barbaric treatment of sick people due not to cruelty but to ignorance of modern medical procedures and a lack of understanding.
There are lots of interesting ideas incorporated into Bone China, then, but in the end I felt that the three threads of the story didn’t come together as neatly as they should have done. I also found the pacing uneven; in the second half of the book, the sense of mystery and carefully building tension of the earlier chapters was replaced by a sudden race to reach the conclusion. I didn’t enjoy this book as much as I’d hoped to, but I’m planning to read Laura Purcell’s first novel, The Silent Companions, soon and will see if I get on better with that one.