I’ve sort of been on a Victorian historical fiction jag lately. First Kept, then The Sealed Letter… and now The Dark Lantern, by Gerri Brightwell.
Set in London in 1893, the story centers around the Bentleys and their servants. Robert Bentley is involved in the study of anthropometry, the study of identifying criminals by their measurements. His wife, Mina, struggles to escape from her past. They are joined by the supposed widow of Robert’s brother, Henry, drowned at sea. In addition, there are the servants: Cartwright, the butler; Mrs. Johnson, the cook; Elsie, the scullery maid; Sarah, the shifty first housemaid; and Jane, the second housemaid. The novel opens when Jane arrives in London, trying to escape the secrets that she, too, harbors. A few days after her arrival, a burglar breaks into the Bentley home and rifles around in the study, triggering a series of events that are shrouded in mystery.
I have mixed feelings about this book. Although the premise is intriguing, I thought that this book isn’t quite as well-thought-out as it might have been. There are way too many things in Mina’s past that are merely hinted at; same thing goes for the widow and Jane. There’s not much in terms of explaining each character’s motives, and certain characters’ manipulation of others was a little too overt. I thought the comparison between anthropometry and fingerprinting was absolutely fascinating, however. And the ambience of the novel was deliciously chilling. But at the same time, I thought that the relationship between the Bentleys and their servants was a little too unrealistic. Yes, there probably was a lot of distrust on both sides, but not, I imagine, to the extent that the Bentleys distrust their servants here. Also, I thought the ending was a little half-baked; too many loose threads. Other than that, though, the book is quite convincing as an historical period piece, in an era where class distinction was quite rigidly defined.