Part romance, part cozy mystery, The Pre-Raphaelite Seamstress by Amita Murray was a thoroughly enjoyable read. The author has done a great deal of research for the book, and this showed in a number of colorful details as well as rich settings and backgrounds, glowing with life.
Rachel Faraday is forced to make her own living by painting fabrics; her influences are Dante Gabriel Rossetti (and yes, the painter does appear in the novel a lot, and he is wonderful.) She tangles at the start with Harry Twyfold, brother to one of her customers, and an instant will-they-or-won’t-they attraction is set up.
However, Twyfold is arrested under suspicion of murder, and Rachel spends the rest of the novel trying to solve it before Harry is hanged as a killer. This makes for a bit of a problem for the romance, since the scenes between the two are in prison and few in number. Murray makes them count, however, with just the right amount of anger and tension.
Furthermore, the painter Rossetti meets Rachel and takes her as a student. They develop a relationship of their own, an original combination of teacher/student and seducer/seduced. It was in those scenes Rachel flowered as a character; she is forthright, upfront, and bold. The painter himself is perfect, with a combination of self-assured sensuality and genius, versus a fleshy air that repels and attracts the artistic Miss Faraday.
When she’s not studying with Rossetti, Rachel is on the case with Gil, her cousin, and later some new characters she didn’t know were alive at all. (Spoiler alert – I’ll add this at the bottom under the stars, so don’t read the final paragraph if you don’t want to spoil the surprise.) Gil spars perfectly with Rachel, and the scenes in her kitchen with her companion, Magda, are really funny.
Image Courtesy of The Telegraph
There were a few chapters that were info dumps, serving up indigestible chunks of backstory in long paragraphs, but they were necessary to the story and not mere filler. Anyone who has read and enjoyed Pride and Prejudice or any Georgette Heyer novel won’t have a problem with those.
As Heyer herself has done, Murray carefully adds real background, and in a delightful way. One of my favorites was Rachel moving through a marketplace, speaking to the owners of the stalls:
I dodged chickens, stilt-walkers, girls dancing the hornpipe egged on by a crowd of engorged men, a Happy Family hand barrow, and shoeblacks sitting in the middle of it all, oblivious to the threat of getting crushed in the melee. The crowd forced me to slow down, and vendors stood in my way, showing off their wares and haggling, and I kept saying, “Sorry, sorry! This way, please. Sorry, right behind you! I do apologize. I don’t need a laudanum tincture or battered halibut! Just, please let me pass!” (2014). The Pre-Raphaelite Seamstress (Kindle Locations 1063-1067). Amita Murray. Kindle Edition.
There were a few notes that didn’t quite ring true: Gil apologizing to a stall keeper – a woman at that. Since he is higher in society, I can’t imagine that happening in the nineteenth century. Furthermore, the comfortable conversations between Rachel, Gil, and Magda would never happen in that rigidly structured society. However, I can see those conversations add to the plot, so if you’re willing to overlook some faults of accuracy, you will really enjoy the book.
Another example is Rachel’s “sunflower yellow” teapot. I’ve had tea poured from many a pot in England, and I’ve never seen a yellow one. So I did some extensive research of my own to look at typical pots of the period, and they were mainly brown, like my own Brown Betty pot. Also, a character invites Rachel to look through her own bedroom upstairs – something I just can’t imagine happening today, let alone in Victorian England.
But look at me, niggling over details… in doing so I’m definitely missing the forest for the trees. Just taste the way the author describes the area of London near Rossetti’s studio:
The lights mingled with the chimes of St. Paul’s, and the calls of the barges near London Bridge, scuttling coal and bricks, sand and timber. The grime, the soot, the pickpockets, the stench, the prostitutes with peeling skin and a dry pain between their legs – these didn’t disappear in this new London, but merged into it. I would watch a mudlark trawling through the rubbish down in the street, picking out lost pieces of coal from between the rats, the broken china, the refuse, and even that seemed like a natural part of the life that made up the city. I would watch an urchin scavenging for a piece of bread. A cat staring at me with its green-amber eyes before disappearing into the fog. It was magical. It was real. For those hours that I spent in Rossetti’s studio, I could reconcile to living in London and not have the constant feeling of wanting to be elsewhere. (2014). The Pre-Raphaelite Seamstress (Kindle Locations 1280-1286). Amita Murray. Kindle Edition.
…With writing like that, I can afford to ignore the yellow teapot and the ersatz boudoir visits.
In the end, there are a few chapters that felt ‘off’ to me. One was with the spoiler I mentioned before: it is so dramatic it falls into maudlin category. Overall, however, I was captivated by the book and thoroughly enjoyed it. I give it a solid four stars and recommend it as a lovely novel for those who love the era, the art, and original romance.
SPOILER - Highlight this bit if you want read it: The novel became somewhat banal when Rachel’s mother entered the scene. Her appearance was so extraordinary and led to events which simply didn’t flow for me. I see she introduced some key plot elements, but I wish the author could have found a more natural way of doing it.