Near the beginning of Crimson and Bone Annie Stride, the main character of the novel, describes a room in the house of pre-Raphaelite painter Francis Maybrick Gill as ‘a jewel box of a place’. Much the same could be said of this novel with its vibrant descriptions of the physical surroundings, of the characters and their clothing, as well as the vivid intensity of Francis’ paintings. Set against this is the murky browns and greys of London’s sordid underworld of poverty and prostitution.
The novel begins on a freezing night in 1853 with Annie, a pregnant prostitute, on the point of tumbling from a parapet on Waterloo Bridge into the icy Thames. Three months earlier Annie’s only friend, Mary Jane, had leapt from the same place into the water. Annie is pulled back by Francis who was passing by in his top hat, tails and opera cape. He asks for an hour of her time and takes her to the Royal Academy of Arts where Annie stands, in her ragged clothing among the silks and jewellery of the other guests, before Francis’ painting, The Bridge of Sighs, which shows Mary Jane lying dead at the edge of the water beneath the arches of the bridge. Francis then invites Annie to come back to his house as he wants her to let him save her. Annie agrees as she has nowhere else to go. Francis provides Annie with clothing and shelter and asks nothing of her other than she model for him for a series of paintings called The Fallen Woman and, increasingly, to voice her gratitude for what he has done for her. The paintings increase Francis’ reputation as an artist and bring Annie to the notice of London society as his muse. He also begins to ‘improve’ Annie, encouraging her to read widely as well as improving her speech and manners. Annie does not fully understand Francis or his motivations, believing and hoping that when she is ‘perfect, he would claim her’.
Told in the third person from Annie’s point of view, the novel follows Francis and Annie from London to Florence and finally to Venice. Each chapter begins with a fragment told by Mary Jane of her life and progresses to the point where her and Annie’s lives intertwine and we come to understand how Mary Jane’s life ended. Through Annie’s memories of her life before Francis, the reader is confronted with the horrors endured by women forced to prostitution in 19th century England. Tension and unease build slowly as Annie’s story develops and she gradually comes to sense that Francis may not be exactly the saviour she believes him to be. The novel is an absolute page turner by the end.
Unfortunately, although this is a riveting and beautifully written story, it contains some startling anachronisms. It is set in 1853 yet Annie listens to gramophone recordings to improve her diction – the phonograph was invented in 1877 and the word gramophone was not used as a generic term until the early 20th century. Francis takes Annie to watch G. B. Shaw’s play Pygmalion at the Lyceum Theatre, this is three years before Shaw was born and sixty years before the play premiered – quite a feat! They take a train trip to Venice from Florence although in 1853 there wasn’t a direct connection. These sort of mistakes draw the reader out of the story and, in my case, made me start to question all sorts of other historical details; I suspect that there are far more than I identified. It is such a pity as otherwise Crimson and Bone is an excellent read.
Another review can be found here.