20th Feb 2012
The Whores’ Asylum by Katy Darby
When Edward Fraser, a scholar of Divinity at Oxford University, finds himself rooming with charming medical student Stephen Chapman, he has no idea that he will be drawn into the murky underworld of Oxford, or that he will come face to face with his own past.
The Whore’s Asylum is an enjoyable début by Katy Darby, more often seen running London literary night ‘Liars League’. Every staple of the neo-Victorian novel is present – the fallen woman, the sexually repressed man of religion, and plenty of licentious aristocrats.
But Darby deftly lifts her material out of cliché, and offers a genuinely gripping read that brings to mind the twisting plots of Wilkie Collins, a welcome departure from the countless Dickens imitators that crowd her field.
Like Collins, Darby employs multiple narrators, all of them equally unreliable, to weave a story about doomed love and decadence that could rival Sarah Waters.
The prim and reserved Edward, whose violent aversion to his friend’s beloved implies that he is not quite as sexless as he would like to believe, nor are his feelings towards Stephen strictly platonic, is the principal narrator, albeit one who is knows more about the woman in question than he is prepared to admit.
Darby captures his puritanical nature shrewdly, whilst also hinting at something more primal beneath the surface. Thanks to multiple narrators, we see each of the three protagonists through each other’s eyes.
This is a particular advantage when it comes to the enigmatic Diana, whose presence in Stephen’s life threatens to wreck his relationship with Edward.
With each new narrator, Darby peels away the layers of Victorian female stereotypes to reveal a realistic flesh and blood woman. Her dry wit and feisty nature could carry a novel alone, but Stephen and Edward, whilst not heroes of any conventional nature although each tries to cast himself as one, both offer a gripping insight into their part of the story.
The contrast between the dreaming spires and the seedy world of Jericho with its streets paved with pickpockets and prostitutes is one of the novel’s greatest strengths, and the city of Oxford itself is a central character with all the contradictions, quirks and hypocrasies that make Edward, Stephen and Diana such compelling protagonists.
The Whore’s Asylum succeeds where I’ve always felt the latter fails, in giving an accurate (if depressing) depiction of 19th century prostitution without being voyeuristic, and it stands up comfortably when compared with Waters’ reworking of the sensational novel.
The novel’s climax is truly bone-chilling, and Darby has created a villain whose depravity and sadism wouldn’t be out of place in a modern horror film. It is an excellent first novel and an enjoyable addition to the genre.