The decade is the late 1880s; the place, London. Queen Victoria is about to celebrate her jubilee. The British Empire is the most powerful force in the world. But the economy is racked by recession, homeless families camp in Trafalgar Square, and a jittery government is preparing for what will be the underside of the jubilee celebrations: riots that will be known as Bloody Sunday.
Clare Clark’s “Beautiful Lies” presents us with a couple who would surely be counted among our Beautiful People today: Edward is a dashing member of the House of Commons who has spent a good deal of his adult life in Argentina and owns a sprawling Scottish manor house. He’s an unabashed swashbuckler, given to wearing bandannas and wide-brimmed hats and silver-trimmed capes, but he’s also an incorrigible idealist, a member of socialist groups, dedicated to mitigating the sorry lot of the poor. His trophy wife, Maribel, is a great beauty, an aspiring poet and photographer, addicted to Parisian gowns. Their courtship was conducted in a Spanish brothel, but they’ve floated a cover story, hoping no one will recognize her from some murky night abroad.
Maribel was born in England to a dreary lower-middle-class family. At 13, she ran away to find fame upon the stage but ended up working as a prostitute instead. There’s a baby somewhere, too, which she hasn’t told Edward about. His career must never be besmirched in any way.
As for Edward, he’s addicted to showmanship and risk-taking. Besides riding his Argentine pony through the staid London streets, he still frequents brothels with enthusiasm. Maribel isn’t crazy about this supposed secret of his, but she knows better than to confront him about it. She worries, however. There’s nothing the tabloid press loves better than a scandal.
Their married life has long ago settled into a pleasant routine, which takes up hundreds of Clare Clark’s pages: a dinner party and then a tea and then an exhibition and another dinner party. A spat and then a reconciliation.
All this is played in pleasing counterpart to the life of their best married friends, Arthur and Charlotte, who possess uncounted children and pots of money. Charlotte, with her sunny demeanor, is the very embodiment of Coventry Patmore’s “Angel in the House,” and in fact almost all of their friends are civilized and kind.
Except for one Alfred Webster, editor of the Chronicle, a tabloid that lives and breathes scandal. Maribel, to her own shame and disgust, finds herself attracted to him and flirts with him, which can surely do no harm; he’s a staunch champion of the poor and one of Edward’s most influential backers. But Webster’s also a smarmy creep who fingers pornographic pictures even as he piously extols the virtues of his invalid wife.
Maribel searches for a career: She “had had a poem accepted for publication,” she consoles herself. “She had presented a well-received lecture to members of the Socialist League on ‘Socialism and the Modern Woman,’ ” and her interest in photography becomes invaluable when the odious Webster plots to destroy Edward’s family.
There’s so much more here. Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show passes through the story, as do spirit photography, seances, and Oscar Wilde’s wife and Karl Marx’s daughter.
The whole novel is carefully constructed and full of wonderful details about the period. You can see, as so many other scholars and commentators have observed, that the Victorian Age is a mirror image of our own. And Edward and Maribel are touching, funny, brave and sweet. It’s a pleasure spending time with them. I’d love to have gone to some of those lovingly described parties!
See regularly reviews books for The Washington Post.
By Clare Clark
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
500 pp. $26