By Clare Clark
Master and Commander gave me a taste for British historical fiction, so I thought I’d experience a more female perspective via Clark’s tale of a pregnant village girl who becomes an apothecary’s maid in the teeming metropolis of 18th century London.
Much darker and far less humorous, TNoM is more of a gothic horror story, and quite Dickensian in its account of Eliza Tally’s bleak existence: getting whored out to a landowner’s son by her mother, dealing with an unwanted pregnancy, being sent to London to become a servant at an apothecary, and enduring the cold and rather demeaning treatment from the apothecary’s wife, Mrs. Black, and the lecherous the shop assistant, Edgar.
Although sullen and defiant by nature, Eliza is still a poor outsider stuck in an unknown city without family or commendation. She has very few options but to remain confined in the claustrophobic Black household, and share her duties and sleeping area with Mary, the idiot maidservant. She is also naturally wary of and fascinated by her mysterious master, the oddly disfigured apothecary, Grayson Black:
My master was as present and yet as invisible in the house in Swan-street as God Himself was in church, except that, as Mrs. Black and the frog-voiced parson like to instruct me, God was the one true Light. My master, on the other hand, seemed to me to be composed of darkness, of shadows and locked doors and windowless stairwells and the sour black smoke of extinguished candles.
Since the narrative is interspersed with fragments of Black’s journal entries and letters, you get a pretty clear idea that Grayson Black is a ego-maniacal man whose deep-seated misogyny informs the core of his beliefs and area of study:
My work with the parish women has shown me clearly that the low faculty of imagination that so dominates women is brought most effectively to the fore by the cultivation of such fear. It weakens the solids & fibres of the body, already so much feebler than those of the male, so that they are at their most receptive to impression.
Not to mention whose delusions of grandeur allow him to bully those around him, most especially Mrs.Black:
”Madam, I stand at the threshold of greatness and you threaten me with a debtors’ gaol? I will not be goaded so, do you hear me? Was Mr. Sydenham assailed with petty concerns such as yours? Was Hippocrates?”
At first Eliza thinks that Black will help restore her wayward reputation by getting rid of her child, but little does she know the mad apothecary has other designs, such as subjecting her and Mary to horrifying experiments! When Eliza is sent out to run errands, she slowly befriends the bookseller Mr. Honfleur, and eventually summons the courage to ask him the nature of her master’s work (warning: spoiler ahead!):
“Ah, it is hardly a secret. Your esteemed master writes a treatise… the notion of maternal impression of something close… the effects of strong emotions, fear, desire, and such like, upon the physical form of a foetus… the eminent gentlemen of the Royal Society have long been fascinated with monsters…"
Overall the story is quite compelling and complex without being too dense and over-laden with period detail. Indeed, the prose can be a little overly expository at times as typical of this type of fiction, and Eliza’s articulate inner dialogue doesn’t quite mesh with how an uneducated yet intelligent village girl would think in her head.
Even though the details of Eliza’s living situation can get a bit bogged down with bleak pessimism where most of the characters are motivated by greed, status and/or cruelty, Clark keeps it balanced with enough action, suspense and itty bit of hope to keep me gripped throughout the depressing sections. Plus, the character arc of Eliza starting off as an illiterate, self-centred maidservant who hates the idiot maid Mary and ending up as a sympathetic, street-smart heroine who ends up loving the idiot maid after all was a gradual and convincing enough transition to pull me through to the end. A flawed but satisfying read!