What's the difference between taking a look and spying?

The Dress Lodger (New York Times Notable Books) - Sheri Holman



There are many pleasant fictions of the law in constant operation, but there is not one so pleasant or practically humorous as that which supposes every man to be of equal value in its impartial eye, and the benefits of all laws to be equally attainable by all men, without the smallest reference to the furniture of their pockets.

—Charles Dickens, Nicholas Nickleby

I can't decide if The Dress Lodge is a 3 or 4 star novel. It was very effective in drawing the reader into the 19th century. But it was creepy. Many times I felt like a peeping Tom.

Gustine is a 15 year old potter's assistant by day and a prostitute in a rented dress by night. Her pimp and landlord, Wilky, has hired a one eyed hag, Eye, to keep her eye on Gustine and the dress. In turn, Gustine hires Whilky's daughter, Pink, to keep an eye on Gustine's "special" infant son and to keep Eye's eye off of the unnamed baby. Pink, whose eyes are lined in red from infection, prefers the company of her father's ferret, Mike. All of this occurs in a boarded up, fetid rooming house which shelters about 30 of Sunderland's poor. Fos, short for phosphorescent, like her decaying jaw from the phosphorus used in painting matchsticks , brings cholera into this shelter . This is just the beginning of the horrors. Remember, the cholera epidemic starts slowly, but soon speeds through house after house, town after town and then country after country. Livng conditions, misunderstandings about how disease is dispersed along with superstitions and cultural rites, like wakes, are accurately shown.

Holman also lets us see how the other half lives. Their homes are of course larger, heated, cleaned and attended to, by workers a step or two higher than Gustine. Dr. Henry Chiver, suffers because of a scandal, but has a home with servants, bottles of wine and money in his pocket. Yet, doctors need cadavers to study. What better place to find them them, but in the slums and grave yards of the poor. It may seem cold hearted and sinister to the bereaved, but science is more important, isn't it? Yet the poor, illiterate and fallen (prostitutes, pimps,etc.) believe that their dead deserve peace in a final resting place.

The creepy part is when Holman takes us along to dinner, whether it be a hardened piece of bread, a fish scrap, a bit of candy or a picnic lunch of chicken and wine. She steers us through the toilet pails which contain urine for washing and the waste slop which is saved in pails. We watch as Gustine, the dress lodger, meets men and is used by them in a corner, against a rock and in a chair next to her infant son. Chiver yearns for Gustine's baby because his heart is visible , for Gustine because her heart is strong and true and because Chiver knows that he is heartless. Why is this creepy? I just felt that I was privy to too much. I tasted the hunger, felt the cold, the heat and heard the silent cries of the disturbed dead. The smell of the sick, the unwashed, the human waste was pervasive . The blindness and lack of feeling by the healers, the doctors, is apparent to lowest class.

Watching Gustine, a single mother, juggling two jobs in order to care for her son, though she has no hopes or goals for herself was voyeuristic and uncomfortable because I read it while sitting on a soft couch while munching on a cookie, safe and warm as it rained outside.