[Read as an ebook from the local library]
Books like this generally don’t hit my radar. I do love well executed historical fiction, but as you might know from reading my review of The Unlikely Escape of Uriah Heep, I’m not a Dickens person. Victorian England is not my particular wheelhouse. But I do like Korean film, and The Handmaiden, Park Chan-wook’s sumptuous 2016 film, follows the initial plot of this book relatively closely, so I was curious to read the original.
Because this is a suspense/mystery book, describing the plot too much would give up some of the twists, so once again I’m going to be light on details. The twin hearts of the story are Sue Trinder, a 17-year-old orphaned girl raised in a London thieves’ den by her adoptive mother Mrs. Sucksby with hopes of eventually doing something that will make her fortune, and Maud Lilly, a 17-year-old orphaned girl raised by her uncle in his lonely country house to be his secretary and reader. The two are connected by Richard Rivers (called Gentleman in London for his fancy ways), a conman determined to marry Maud for her inheritance and use Sue to help him by installing her as Maud’s maid. Once Maud and Gentleman are married, Maud will be declared insane and committed to an asylum, and Gentleman will inherit her fortune. That’s the original plan, but Sue and Maud are both keeping secrets, and nothing will turn out the way that either of them expect.
This is an exceptionally atmospheric book. You really feel the damp and slow decay of the Lilly house, the claustrophobic heat in Mrs. Sucksby’s London rooms. You can almost hear the clock tick and the soft swish of silks in the silence of slow passing hours. There’s a lot that doesn’t happen, which serves to set off the things that do. The narrative depends on its two main characters, and you are kept in suspense as to how you feel about them — whether you pity one and root for the other, love one and hate the other, or accept both with all their graces and faults. It’s quite effectively done, and until the end you’re not sure where anything is going or what will work out, if anything at all.
This is a long book, at 511 pages, and some of it does drag in places when you’re waiting for something to happen. If you can bend yourself to the pace, it’s worth it, but it’s difficult. Also, the content warnings for this one are numerous. There are very detailed scenes of involuntary confinement and medical trauma/abuse. There is also what Maud does for her uncle, which <spoiler>could easily be considered sexual abuse of a minor or at the very least a deeply inappropriate adult/minor relationship</spoiler>. There is a lot of child abuse, this being Victorian England. And of course, there’s sexual content, although it’s really not particularly racy by today’s standards.
I found this overall fairly enjoyable, if long. I had forgotten a lot of the main plot points from the film, and the third act is quite different altogether. Sue and Maud are flawed heroines but they’re thoroughly engaging, and in the end you cannot help but fall for both. Their story is quite lovely, in its own awful way, and they each have grit and beauty to spare.
Requisite The Handmaiden photos (Honestly, this film is gorgeous and the cast is just ridiculously beautiful):