I once began a masters in Victorian Studies and did a lot of work around literature, art and visual culture. Through it I developed a lifelong love of the Pre-Raphaelites and the design of the Arts and Crafts period, so the scandal of Victorian wallpaper poisonings was something I’d researched and written about before. I was very keen to see how the author had used this moment in history to inspire a Gothic story and I was utterly seduced by that divine green cover. As the 19th century progressed, more intricate and vibrant wallpapers were the fashion, in much the shame way that they’re having a moment now. In the early part of the century a rich, vibrant green named Scheele’s Green had pemerged. The colour was so incredibly popular that by the 1850’s it was being used in the production of household items from wallpapers, paints, and candles, to clothes and children’s toys. A vibrant green called Schiele’s Green emerged in the 1850’s, but was manufactured using large amounts of copper arsenite. Arsenic had a completely unique property that enhanced colour pigments and stopped them from fading, perfect for items like wallpaper that would be affected by sunlight over time. Manufacturers knew that arsenic was toxic, but chose to promote the line that it was only harmful if ingested – a dangerous lie that lasted decades. As wallpaper became ever more popular, reports began of people suffering slow and agonising deaths. Damp homes amplified the problem because of toxic fumes released by moisture on the walls. Rooms with large fires created the same problem meaning that many Victorian homes were veritable death traps. Alison Matthews David, who wrote about the problem in ‘Fashion Victims: The Dangers Of Dress Past And Present’, explains that “arsenic didn’t fade and looked bright under lights. It was stunning and became hugely popular in clothes. A ball gown would contain enough arsenic to kill 200 people and a hair wreath 50. The amounts used were lethal.’ This background knowledge had me champing at the bit for some horrifying deaths and characters terrified by intricate, poisonous wallpaper.
Braithwaite and Company are a Victorian wallpaper company caught up in the arsenic scandal and murky work practices at their copper mines in Devon, where the family are from. When our heroine Lucy Braithwaite, along with her brothers Tom and John were young and living at the family’s country home there was an accident in the copper mine. There were small children from the village sent into the most remote and claustrophobic points of the mine, because only they could fit. They were all killed. Mr Braithwaite died soon after and the family chose to move to their London home, nearer to the company’s offices. The company ran under the management of long running manager Mr Luckhurst, who had worked closely with Mr Braithwaite for many years. Mrs Braithwaite concentrated on the home front, filling their home with the latest wallpaper patterns from the company. Apart from Being I love oLucy who chose to have her room painted in the palest blush pink to be a calm and quiet space in contrast to the rest of the house. Yet the family’s luck was still on a downward turn after the death of Tom, who seemingly declined while being tortured by terrible hallucinations. Were these visions from within or without?
Their luck seems set to change completely when Lucy is a young woman and a new, young and dynamic manager takes over after the death of old retainer Mr Luckhurst. Mr Rivers is young, handsome, gallant and personable, immediately charming Lucy’s mother and brother John. John is the obvious successor to the company, but he has become frail since moving to London. Lucy decided to move his bedroom down to their father’s old study so he doesn’t have to contend with stairs. His room is a combination of workplace and bedroom, the desk enabling to go through company papers and keep abreast of matters. He and Mr Rivers hit it off immediately and it’s soon common for them to retire to John’s bedroom after dinner and talk about the company. Lucy finds it strange that despite coming from Devon and apparently working under Mr Luckhurst for years, she has never met Rivers before. However, his knowledge of the company and it’s history is entirely accurate. I found Rivers suspicious straight away and I loved how the author creates this uneasiness in the description of his expressions, his speech and the sense that he’s saying all the right things, but is he just saying what the family want to hear? His name in a Victorian novel seemed significant, because my brain went immediately to Jane Eyre and St.John Rivers. The author’s description of Rivers and his gleaming eyes reminded me of the Jane Eyre character whose own eyes betrayed his fanaticism, of a religious kind in his case. Jane didn’t accept his proposal because there was no love there, but also due to this steeliness and determination, which meant he would pursue his aims to the end. I sensed this same determination in Rivers here but his aim seemed more dangerous and liable to bring harm to the family.
I loved the tension the author heightened towards the end and as I was reading on NetGalley I didn’t expect it to stop where it did. It felt rather sudden. Rivers assures Lucy and her mother that the recipe for the wallpaper colours is not being altered and isn’t causing any harm. However, his endless industrious meetings with brother John would suggest some sort of changes were being made. Also, John’s health is in serious decline. Lucy is called to his room in the night by screams of terror, apparently he sees phantoms but are they caused by his green wallpaper and it’s writhing botanical pattern? He insists on how much Rivers means to him and I started to wonder if there was more than a working connection. Was the attachment one that was considered unnatural? I felt like Rivers was trying to romance every member of the Braithwaite family, using whatever weakness he could find. I found Lucy intelligent, perceptive and able to think differently from her mother. Mrs Braithwaite really did want someone to sweep in and look after everything for her, whereas Lucy has been actively looking for evidence, befriending the boy Rivers uses as a lookout and appealing to those in their circle that they can still trust. Is there a chink in her armour? It’s perhaps likely that Rivers expects the archetypal Victorian heroine who might swoon at a mention of romance, but I was desperately hoping he was wrong. As the reckoning approaches would she be able to remain clear headed and courageous enough to form a plan? I found the final part of the book perplexing. It was exciting and nail-biting, but still with a shroud of mystery over certain details. I came away wondering and I still find myself thinking about it three or four days later. I know sooner or later I will have to pick it up and read it again. Another novel that left me with this feeling was The Turn of the Screw by Henry James; it’s scary and unsettling but difficult to pinpoint exactly what happens. I think this author wanted to wrap the reader in those toxic fumes till we were unsure which parts are real and where the supernatural creeps in, rather like Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper. It doesn’t ruin the book, in fact it enhances that sense of the uncanny that always terrifies. Mysterious, gothic and brimming with historical detail I definitely recommend it, but don’t expect a mystery where every loose end is neatly tied.
Published by Baskerville 16th March 2023
Meet the Author
Jon Michael Varese (J.M. Varese) is an American novelist and literary historian whose first novel, The Spirit Photographer (2018), was published to critical acclaim. He has also written widely on Victorian literature and culture, and has served in various capacities, most recently as Director of Outreach, for The Dickens Project at the University of California for over two decades.