Beautiful Lies

by Clare Clark

Reviewed by Margaret Donsbach

Moody, subtle and evocative, Beautiful Lies explores a collection of nineteenth-century lies: those a liberal politician's wife must tell to cover her scandalous past, those newspaper journalists tell under the cover of factual reportage, those Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show perpetrates in London about the American West, those told by the new phenomenon of photography. Mingled with all these lies are truths of a kind: if the lies were exposed and the facts they cover revealed, far crueler lies might rear their heads.

Maribel Campbell Lowe is the wife of a radically liberal MP whose career is already endangered by his compassion for the throngs of destitute unemployed and exploited working class. Maribel's scandalous past, if exposed, could destroy it. Ironically, the greatest risk comes from a liberal newspaperman who begins sniffing dangerously close to Maribel's secrets. Alfred Webster is proud of his stint in prison for measures he took to expose the buying and selling of very young girls for the sex trade. He seems to be pushing the same positions Maribel's husband, Edward, has been speaking for in Parliament. But is Webster friend or foe?

Languidly suspenseful, the story gradually increases the pressures on Maribel as it gradually reveals her past. Though the tension would be stronger if Edward, the target of the more severe dangers, took center stage, that would make a completely different - and in many ways far less interesting - novel. Beautiful Lies focuses on the more constant and insidious pressures on a woman who cannot play a direct role in changing law but must remain on guard lest a slip of her tongue destroy her husband's work - work from which she, according to their society's rules, is barred. Goaded by emotional yearnings that have no direct tie to Edward's work, she begins to discover the potential of photography, an influence whose very indirectness may give it power. (2012, 500 pages, including an Author's Note discussing the history behind the novel and the true story that inspired it)

More about Beautiful Lies at Powell's Books, or The Book Depository

Other novels about women and politics:

London in Chains by Gillian Bradshaw (2009), about a young woman who goes to work in London for a publisher of political pamphlets during the English Civil War. More info

Life Mask by Emma Donoghue (2004), about an actress who moves in political circles in 1790s London. More info

Now Face to Face by Karleen Koen (1995), a politically astute young widow travels from England to Virginia; sequel to Through a Glass Darkly. More info

Nonfiction relating to nineteenth-century London:

Cunninghame Graham: A Critical Biography by Cedric Watts and Laurence Davies (1979), about the Scottish Socialist MP whose wife inspired the novel Beautiful Lies. More info

Socialists, Liberals and Labour: The Struggle for London, 1885-1914 by Paul Thompson (1967). More info

Buffalo Bill's British Wild West by Alan Gallop (1908). More info


The W.T. Stead Resource Site, a website devoted to nineteenth-century London's popular journalist W.T. Stead

Back to Novels of Nineteenth-Century Europe

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