I love Victorian period dramas. As I was sliding off a high induced by the Encore miniseries The Crimson Petal and the White, based on the 2002 novel by Michel Faber (which I am dying to read), I chanced upon The Whores’ Asylum by Katy Darby. Published in 2012 by Penguin, this is the debut novel of a young woman who teaches writing in England as I do in California, but that is not why I fell in love with her book.
The Whores’ Asylum is aptly titled, with a pretty cover, and in fact has a couple of engaging, colorful whores in it, yet it does not fit genre expectations. It is an intelligent study of the human heart rather than the narrative of a clever whore who raises herself up and escapes from misery in Victorian England. (By no means am I trivializing the referred-to miniseries. I only mean The Whores’ Asylum is a labyrinthine sanctuary where the reader must get lost to find meaning, and it is a delightful book to get lost in.)
Darby gives the amiable narrator’s voice to one Dr. Edward Fraser, whose affinities and friendships set the entire tone of the novel. At the outset, young Fraser has not determined whether to follow his proclivities for righteousness or his fascination for the classical past. It is significant that he has already achieved a Bachelor of Arts in Theology from Cambridge with first class honors and is now pursuing a Master’s in Philosophy at Oxford. Fraser is no simpleton. This character, far more layered than Holmes’ Watson and definitely more significant to the plot, tells of his great friendship for Stephen Chapman, a young man studying medicine. Chapman is good for Fraser and vice versa. They room together in Oxford, sharing their lives, dreams and aspirations with each other. Since the novel is told in hindsight, Fraser wants to explain why Chapman died in such hideous manner, and make amends for his failings, if he can, by so doing.
One of Darby’s delightful ploys is to play a trick on readers who judge. Since making judgments is human, chances are most readers will comply. One may, for instance, judge Fraser as a prude. We are, after all, of the 21st century and do not see things as British society did back in Victorian times. There are other judgments the reader may make which I do not feel inclined to give away. At the very least, the reader will be likely to find young Fraser too judgmental in his view of the young woman with whom Chapman has fallen in love. Still, there is no doubt that Fraser’s friendship is sincere and he tries to do right by Chapman. The reader is free to disagree with Fraser’s point of view on any number of topics or plot twists, and that disagreement is, I believe, something Darby engineers with skill.
The characters in The Whores’ Asylum develop as they are supposed to in serious, prize-winning literature. More than anyone else, the layers of Diana/Anna and Fraser are peeled back over and over, until the person finally seated on the couch beside the reader—they are that alive—is not the one the reader had an opinion about at the beginning or even halfway through the novel. (I blushed next to Edward Fraser, hoping he would forgive me for my earlier criticism.) Through the metamorphoses, the plot keeps us hooked and the changes are all believable.
I can see why Darby titled this novel The Unpierced’ Heart in its first incarnation, for the overall story is about judgments and choices made around, for and about love. The Whores’ Asylum is set against a background of rich Gothic trappings and told in a strong, literary Victorian voice. I cannot wait to see what Darby writes next.