Betsy Tobin, Bone House (2000)

I took this book on a whim, because the French edition had a gorgeous cover: on a matt black background, a cut-out of Susanna and the Elders, by Tintoretto (a painting of the 1550s presently in the Vienna Kunsthistorisches Museum) – the American cover is less appealing. In the Tintoretto rendition of the biblical scene, Susanna is a gorgeous lady with generous curves. Tintoretto must have wanted her to be an Italian lady, but to me she looks a lot like a Flemish Baroque woman à la Rubens. She climbs out of her bath, one foot up, and dries herself with a towel in an indecent (but oblivious) pose, unaware that someone is looking at her. We too are voyeurs, just like the elders, but we can’t help but admire her, even if the canons of beauty have evolved towards thinner women.

Bone House’s main character is Dora, the village prostitute of a remote hamlet in England in 1600, a voluptuous woman born abroad, generous and mysterious all at one: “the great-bellied woman, with her door-wide hips and plate-sized breasts, was more woman than we could ever be. We even envied her belly: her great, laden belly, filled with the fruits of her whoring.” From this description I found that the cover painting was quite well chosen, although Susanna from the Bible is supposed to be virtuous.

“She came across the water, blown like a seed and touched down here. […] Dora lived by her own rules, but they were not unjust. I admired her for this: she was not bound by superstition, nor by fear, nor by other people’s prejudice. She did not justify herself to anyone, no more than she sought the whys and wherefores of those who pitched up on her doorstep. […] She gave counsel freely, offered food and shelter, and sometimes even money to those who needed it. But mostly she gave herself, her big, bounteous self, and those who sought her bed paid handsomely for it.”

The narrator is the young daughter of the village’s midwife, a lonesome, bitter but sought-after woman because she could be trusted with the most shameful secrets and could help some delicate situation. Her daughter works for the Great House’s mistress, an ailing and difficult lady who grew fond of the girl and took her as a chambermaid. So the narrator circulates between these three women, her mother, her mistress, and this fascinating woman who opens her eyes to the possibility of a better life.

When Dora dies in a “freakish accident” at the bottom of a ravine, the young woman feels compelled to understand her death and her life, and as she does so, she uncovers a lot of local secrets. She meets a foreign (Flemish) painter who has been hired at the Great House to paint her mistress, and who will end up painting Dora – and the young chambermaid.

The tone of the novel reminded me in some ways of Geraldine Brooks’ Year of Wonders, which is set in the same century (50 years later) – albeit Brooks’ novel has higher ambitions. There is a lot of research in Tobin’s book (for example, I didn’t know that “Bone House” was an Elizabethan way of describing the body), but it is done effortlessly and the plot and characters flow nicely, touching bigger issues such as fertility, body image, superstition. Strong women seemed able to gain a certain place during those times, and some respect among villagers, but they remained at the fringes of society, such as the prostitute, the midwife and in another order the lady of the manor, and their hard-won positions were always at the mercy of a twist of fate. Accusations of witchcraft were swift to arise against them if something went wrong.

In brief, it’s a dark and even violent adventure, but highly entertaining. I didn’t regret this impulse choice.

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