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Industrial Age Europe was a hothouse for disease -- cholera, bubonic plague, and typhoid epidemics were common and as deadly as war. In 1831, a particularly virulent outbreak of cholera decimated cities on the Continent and in the British Isles. Spread by the "traveling salesmen" of the great mercantile fleets, the disease took up residence in dank, miasmic neighborhoods and preyed upon the young, the old, and the very poor. In her Dickensian second novel, The Dress Lodger, Sheri Holman shows what happens when cholera invades the riverside city of Sunderland, England.
It is on Sunderland's mucky, airless streets that we meet the story's "dress lodger," a 16-year-old single mother named Gustine, whose baby has been born with a bizarre anatomical deformity. To keep the boy alive, Gustine works as a prostitute. After a full day's work at a potter's factory, Gustine dons an expensive blue gown loaned out by her sleazy, libertine landlord, Whilky Robinson. To ensure the dress's safety, Whilky also assigns a shadow to Gustine -- a deformed crone appropriately known as The Eye -- to watch Gustine's every move and goad her to keep looking for clients. The dress does attract upscale clients, but it hardly affords Gustine treatment befitting a lady. When Gustine's admirers realize that she is a whore, they roughly take her in squalid alleys, dimly lit parks, or in the upstairs room at an East End pub called The Labour in Vain.
There she meets Dr. Henry Chiver, a young, effete teacher of anatomy. Chiver came to Sunderland in 1830 fleeing disgrace and outrage in Edinburgh, where he was implicated in the procurement of bodies for medicine's higher purpose. In addition to his legitimate need for cadavers, there is a darker side to Chiver's lust for the dead. He is a collector of specimens, and his study is lined not by books but with jars containing organs and freaks of nature preserved in formaldehyde. When Gustine learns of Chiver's morbid hobby, she offers to troll the piers and alleyways of Sunderland for corpses. For this, she will of course pocket a shilling or two. Her real motive, however, is to ingratiate herself with a doctor who can prolong the life of her son.
When cholera begins to overwhelm the city, Henry's supply of bodies is interrupted by a grieving, suspicious populace that has begun to mistrust all men of medicine. As a result, he must resort to his old ways, robbing graves and the lodging houses of the recent dead. Such disappearances further raise the ire of the city's poor, who are convinced that the disease has been created by the government to weed them out of society. Henry and his Uncle Clanny, a much more principled doctor, are outraged at the ignorance of the city's poor, who cling to the poisoned vestments and remains of their loved ones and thereby spread the infection. A popular melodrama called "Cholera Morbus" further stokes the heat between the poor and the rich, the doctors and the patients, turning the quarantined city into a theater of superstition.
At the same time, Henry has become dangerously preoccupied with Gustine's son, an obsession that disturbs the fine balance he maintains between fetish and Hippocratic duty. Sensing Henry's tenuous grip on sanity, Gustine backs out of an arrangement to have her son live with him. But nothing will stop Henry -- not even cholera's blue stranglehold on Sunderland, or the ravages a mob inflicts upon his elegant townhouse. When she seems bereft of hope, Gustine makes amends and joins forces with a most unlikely partner. Together, they exact vengeance for what's been stolen from them, and from the city's poor.
The Dress Lodger is at once a wickedly funny and deeply philosophical novel. Take away its mesmerizing, fiendish tone, its formidable grasp on the physical and social realities of 1830s England, or its raucous cast of cameos -- sailors, constables, and theater players -- and you still would have a wonderful exploration of the way class wars invaded the literal body politic. In the same way that Gustine's body becomes a marketplace for sexual commerce, the poor in this story become lodgers, rather than owners, of their bodies. They are better employed when dead, doctors' actions tell them. While this reality becomes painfully clear in The Dress Lodger, Holman never forces it home. She's too busy churning out the fabulous plot twists and the gritty details that make her book as entertaining as it is important. Dickens would have been proud.