The Unpierced Heart by Katy Darby

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The Unpierced Heartis the gothic debut from Katy Darby. Originally published under the racier name The Whore’s Asylum, it’s re-packaged here by Penguin under a new title to appeal to a more mass-market audience.

This time-travelling tome takes the reader back to the underbelly of fin-de-siècle Oxford. The focus is on Stephen Chapman, a brilliant young medical student. Whilst volunteering at a shelter for ‘fallen women’, he himself falls for Diana, one of the residents. Stephen becomes convinced that she is a wronged woman – an innocent victim of maltreatment. We hear his story from fellow student, Edward Fraser, who is reading Theology – and who is rather less sure of Diana’s innocence. He recalls one ‘Diana Pelham’, and her tragic, devastating entanglement with another of their friends…

We’re swiftly plunged into a fact-paced, treacherous and heart-rending tale set in seedy Jericho alleyways and taverns, populated by voyeurs, scoundrels and lecherous, abusive sinners.

Darby’s narrative technique – the novel is presented as a series of manuscripts – means that we see herfemale protagonists through the eyes of the male narrators. With the exception of Chapman, these men view women as tricksters – even as the enemy. One discusses a woman in terms that imply that she’s barely deserving of recognition as a human: “I tolerated her…she might be useful.”

Diana herself comes across as a complex and enterprising young woman, who, when seen through the suspicious eyes of Edward, is cunning, wily and deceiving.

A gothic gem of a novel... This is a novel that shows how a woman can come between two men, with devastating effects on their friendship. In this, Chapman and Fraser are reminiscent of the pairing at the heart of Francois Truffaut’s French New Wave cinematic masterpiece, Jules et Jim. On the surface, it’s a familiar, cautionary tale about the damage done by a femme fatale. But, while Darby’s novel is in many ways an impressive recreation of the Victorian novel both in style and morality, her contemporary perspective makes The Unpierced Heart a self-reflexive criticism of the original genre, in which women are portrayed simply as catalysts, without any consideration of the effect that close, exclusionary male bonding and harsh moral strictures might have on them.

Both Diana and Sukey, another central character, are the victims of rape and abuse, a sadly unfamiliar fate for what the Victorians termed ‘fallen women’. Not only that, but their plight is dismissed by the authorities: the police reject and even mock their calls for help. Darby encourages us to consider the attitudes, stigmas and hypocrisies surrounding prostitution in the 19th century, but also invites a comparison with today.

Whether The Whore’s Asylum or The Unpierced Heart,if a change of title helps to bring this gothic gem of a novel – and the critical issues that it brings to the fore – to a wider audience, then it’s very welcome indeed.

The Unpierced Heart is out now in paperback, and is available from Foyles, Amazon, and your local independent bookshop, priced at £8.99. An e-book version is also available, priced at £5.49.

Rating: 4/5

Recommended for… Fans of historical fiction, the gothic and Victoriana.

Other recommended reading: Check out Tom-All-Alone’sby Lynn Shepherdand Mrs Robinson’s Disgrace: The Private Diary of a Victorian Lady by Kate Summerscale for more Victorian stories of scandal. Max Beerbohm’s much-loved satire, Zuleika Dobson, is the definitive original classic tale of the deadly and decimating effect that the love of an entrancing women can have on the Oxford undergraduate population.

Keira Brown