Velvet by Mary Hooper

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Bloomsbury, 2011. ISBN 9780747599210.
(Age : 13+) Recommended. I am a fan of Mary Hooper's historical novels, so I eagerly picked up Velvet, the tale of a young orphan girl who works in a Victorian steam laundry. The work is back breaking and after Velvet has fainted twice from the extreme heat, the manager, Mrs Sloane warns her that she could be dismissed. She pleads for a second chance and is allowed to do the painstaking work of caring for the clothes of rich individuals. She is noticed by one of her clients, Madame Sayoya who is a famous medium, and goes to work for her. At first she is beguiled by Madame and her helper the handsome George. She finds it wonderful to live with a generous employer, with work that she enjoys. She believes that she is making a new life for herself and is not interested in the attentions of Charlie, a young man from her past. However she begins to realise that all is not as it seems with Madame Sayoya.
Hooper's description of life in 1900 for young girls who have no family and are penniless is poignant. They have little chance of lucrative employment, and are lucky if they manage to get a job in a laundry or as a servant. Many scavenge on the street for scraps and turn to prostitution to stay alive. Life is terrible for girls who have illegitimate children and they are forced to send their infants to baby farms where they have little chance of survival. So it is not surprising that Velvet, who has suffered from an abusive father and lives in a dilapidated room, wants to believe the best of Madame. However, Velvet is a girl with a conscience and gradually begins to question the ethics of the mediums who were so popular in those times.
Hooper's chapters where she describes what happens in a private meeting with Madame Sayoya, give an in-depth picture of how grieving people were taken in by unscrupulous spiritualists. Spiritualism was very popular in the late 19th and early 20th century and the addition of figures like Conan Doyle to the spiritualist's meetings gave an extra historical dimension. Notes at the back of the book about how spiritualists manoeuvred spectral appearances and seemed able to accurately describe what has happened to people also gives interesting information.
This was a book that I read in a couple of sittings and I loved it for the historical information that I gained so effortlessly through Hooper's vivid writing. A book trailer is available.
Pat Pledger