Saturday, August 2, 2014
THE CONJURER: A MARTHA BEALE MYSTERY by CORDELIA FRANCES BIDDLE
Before you ask, yes this author is from "that" Biddle family in Philadelphia. The family may be known mainly for finances and the Main Line, but Cordelia Biddle is an admirable historian and writer. Even if The Conjurer wasn't such a great story, it would be worth reading for its setting in Philadelphia in 1842.
From the very beginning the reader is in the middle of a mysterious disappearance. Two dogs wait faithfully beside the flooding Schuylkill River as it roars past carrying debris as large as trees. It is cold and the dogs shiver but refuse to leave the point where they last saw their master, Lemuel Beale. At the Beale mansion his 26 year old daughter Martha and his private secretary Owen Simms await his arrival for a meal.
The most interesting part of the book, and the most maddening to modern women, is the restricted life of the upper class woman contrasted with the hopeless life of the poor and/or black woman. You will be shocked at the fact of 11 year old prostitutes, many of whom had been sold by their fathers, and equally shocked at the way wealthy women lived, or rather existed. They had no say whatsoever in any aspect of their lives and had to obey strict rules of conduct and dress.
I was fascinated also by such historical tidbits as the story of Eastern State Penitentiary which is open to tourists now. Absolute silence was the rule. The men had an indoor cell and an outdoor one, but women only had indoor cells because they were thought to need protection from fresh air and weather. The stench in the place was terrible, partly due to sewage back-up during floods.
There is also the story of The Association for the Care of Colored Orphans created by some of the wealthy women of Philadelphia. They took in 60 orphans at a time and gave them clean quarters, basic education, and good food, but no toys.
The one objection I have to the book is that the solution to the several mysteries comes a little too abruptly as does transformation in major characters. This is a minor quibble though in an otherwise excellent novel.
Highly recommended ebook
Source: Open Road Media/Netgalley