Beautiful Lies, By Clare Clark Harvill

Reform, romance and scandal in the year of another jubilee

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The Independent Culture

The historian-turned-novelist Clare Clark's new novel is set in London in 1887, the year of Queen Victoria's Golden Jubilee. The "lavish celebrations" sit with a familiar uneasiness against the "deep recession and rising unemployment", with "strikes, demonstrations [and] violent riots in which shops were smashed and looted".

But Clark's novel is more than a vehicle for the "interesting parallels" between the 1880s and the contemporary moment; it's a shining example of historical literary fiction.

Clark's first two novels, The Great Stink, a story about self-harm set in the labyrinthine sewers of Victorian London, and Savage Lands, a tale of the French pioneers struggle for survival in 18th century Louisiana, were both long-listed for the Orange Prize.

Clark's heroine is Maria Isabel Constanza de la Flamandière ("such a mouthful she had always been known simply as Maribel"), an exotic beauty who claims French and Spanish descent and a girlhood spent in Chile. Maribel is a "New Woman", a chain-smoking photographer who doesn't shy away from adventure. Her husband, the Radical Liberal MP Edward Campbell Lowe, is equally infamous. A flame-haired Scotsman who tirelessly champions the working man's cause, he wears the "flamboyant" attire of the gauchos of the Argentinean pampas, with whom he rode as a young man; a wide-brimmed hat and a bandanna knotted about his neck. Both, fascinatingly, are based on the real-life couple, Robert Cunninghame Graham and his wife Gabriela.

The story of how the Campbell Lowes met is "well known to everyone in their circle" – a "chance encounter" on the Champs-Elysées when Edward's horse nearly knocked Maribel down. But, revelling in the romance, no one thinks to question how so skilled a horseman came to lose control of his animal. Underneath the picture-perfect exterior of their relationship, Maribel has a secret more scandalous than Edward's Conservative opponents could ever imagine, and everything the rheumy-eyed newspaperman Mr Webster – Christian zealot and editor of the City Chronicle, out to bring Edward down – has ever dreamed of. In her previous novels Clark rendered the past in visceral terms but here there's a muted, though no less powerful, precision to her prose. Take the perfect description of a man whose "expansive manner hung loosely on him, a borrowed suit several sizes too large", or Maribel surveyed by eyes so piercing they "drew the heat in her out like a poultice".

The novel is ornately grounded in historical accuracy; this is a London "convulsed with cowboy fever" in response to the arrival of Buffalo Bill's Wild West show from America, hungry for spirit photographs, and attending lectures organised by new movements from the Society for Promoting the Employment of Women to the Socialist League.

Clark's combination of these elements is nothing less than literary pyrotechnics. Beautiful Lies is a dazzlingly elegant novel steeped in the rich detail of the period.

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