There is little about the way this novel is presented to suggest the dreadful happenings within its covers. Apart perhaps from the bottles of Laudanum and Godfrey’s Cordial – ‘the Quietness’ – tucked out of the way on the back. Its foiled William Morris wallpaper look and the rather clean and contemporary looking model on the front both hint at a conventional historical novel, which the blurb confirms as set in London in 1870. And yet, only a few pages in, The Quietness plunges us into all the vice and hypocrisy of Victorian London, and a horrifying story unfolds which takes in illegitimacy, infant death, rape, prostitution and worse.
Fourteen year-old Queenie longs for some respite from the squalid slums where she grows up, squeezed into one room with her parents and hungry siblings. When her father goes awol, the ‘easy’ money available to her mother by selling herself to paying customers behind a pinned-up sheet provides the only way to keep everyone fed. Queenie yearns for a better life, and when she answers an advertisement for a home help, it seems that she has finally found it. But why are the babies in her charge so quiet? And why must she keep dosing them with Godfrey’s Cordial?
Queenie’s misfortunes are told in counterpoint with those of fifteen year-old Ellen who lives a seemingly much more privileged life in a big house across town. But it is a cold, lonely existence, with a domineering anatomist father who monitors her monthly bleeds, and a mother who is cold to her. The arrival of Jacob, a hitherto unknown cousin stirs new emotions, and Ellen dares to dream of love. But love is to prove her undoing.
Victorian London is very well drawn in this novel, which balances giving just the right amount of period detail with a plot which moves on at a tidy, absorbing pace through short, alternating chapters. And I liked the underlying theme of quiet. Ellen’s lonely life is stiflingly quiet, whilst Queenie constantly yearns for a breather from the clamour of the demands of others. Neither can find any real peace. But it is the more sinister Quietness of the title which provides the chilling heart of this novel. In her author’s note, Rattle explains that her story was inspired by true-life murder case, and it was an unquiet one indeed.
The sheer wretchedness of many Victorian women’s lives, from the moral stain caused by illegitimacy to the contemptuous misunderstanding of their bodily functions and emotions, is thoughtfully portrayed. The final chapters feel rather melodramatic however, as the author hurries to resolve her story, leaving a whole host of unanswered questions hanging from the noose. And ultimately, this novel feels a little too young in the telling for the grimness of its subject matter. There are some things so shocking they cannot be wallpapered over.