Dress Down Sunday: The Night in Question by Laurie Graham

published 2015


Night in Question 1Night in Question 2

[1888. Heroine and narrator Dot lives in the East End of London

Then I heard her scream. Not just a little shriek, like she’d do when she’d seen a spider, but a proper scream that went on and on. I wasn’t even half dressed. All I had on was my knickers and health corset. I ran down in my dressing gown and nearly did the splits skidding on water that had slopped over the rim of the bath. By the time I got to the yard she’d left off screaming and commenced whimpering instead. The yard was black with flies and so was she, head and shoulders.

Night in Question 3

[Later, on a return trip to her hometown
The following morning I put on my health bustle and my peacock-blue gown and frizzed my front hair.

Albert said, ‘You’ll turn heads looking like that.’

I said, ‘Wait till they see my hat. It’s got a feather a foot high. If they’re all so keen to see me I might as well give them their money’s worth.’

commentary: There is a short and informative article on the history of corsets on the V&A website: it’s the kind of thing blogfriend Daniel Milford Cottam knows a lot about, and I’m half expecting him to have had a hand in the V&A piece…

According to Wikipedia, "health corsets" became popular during the late 19th century. In 1884, Dr. Jaeger came up with wool sanitary corsets, described as flexible and elastic, durable, and responsive to movements. Nowadays we would assume that the ‘health’ claim was trying to counteract the obvious (to us) unhealthiness of wearing something restrictive and unnatural. But Dr Jaeger claimed that the wool had curing capabilities and that it had cured him of his chronic health problems - excess of weight and indigestion.

See earlier entry for more on this book, and why I loved it so much. Graham does the best casual lines, while dealing with a wide range of subjects. Homosexuality - a serious crime then – is mentioned:
‘He’s probably been corrupted. Does he look like he’s been corrupted?’
‘I don’t know. How can you tell? He has started wearing a billycock hat.’
One of the good things about Graham is that she doesn’t give people unlikely views for their time – Dot’s attitudes to the lives and morals around her are feasible and convincing but not over the top, and it is clear her tolerance is not shared by all – but then that’s the point Graham is making.

There are endless quotable lines in the book. Dot is a music hall artiste - I liked her friend who once worked ‘hawking gallows ballads’:
…wherever there was to be a hanging. It’d be a bit like the business I’m in. No two weeks are the same. You must go wherever you can get an engagement.
Dot is surprised by someone who has never seen a corpse – where she grew up,
going to see the dead was a very popular pastime… When our Mam passed over, we kept her on the sideboard for two days and nights and we got through three bottles of Morning Dew. She was very well liked. Mind you, it was winter.
I loved this book, and it is very highly recommended to anyone who likes entertainment, books with great heroines, murder stories, and books about famous Victorian crimes.

One corset picture is from the Wikipedia entry, the other is from Wikimedia Commons. The bustle picture is an advertising image posted to Flickr by sunspark58.


  1. I can't help thinking, Moira, that someone was trying to do a good PR job in portraying corsets as healthy. But that aside, I do think you've hit on something important in a good historical novel: authenticity in characters' views. That's not always as easy to do as it might seem, because modern writers are products of their times. But it can make a big difference when ti comes to the 'feel' of a novel.

    1. I think we agree on this one Margot, and it's a key to a successful historical novel. It doesn't make sense to me to give your characters unlikely views...

  2. Alas, no, that article is nothing to do with me! I think it may even be before my time, as the other pieces in the series were done by Lucy Johnston, who left shortly before I joined the Museum nearly 9 years ago....

    1. I did enjoy reading it *even* if it wasn't you. The meaning of 'health' underwear was a revelation. Somehow the word 'sanitary' doesn't go with corsets, very off-putting.

  3. Deep slumber beckons - definitely giving serious consideration to hibernating......

    1. Really feeling bad about this! Looking now for something suitable before we lose you forever!


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