In early nineteenth-century England, Gustine is a "dress lodger" who rents a room and a fraying but elegant robe which she wears to work as a prostitute. The dissolute, violent landlord takes all her earnings and to keep her from hiding the money or stealing the dress, he has her followed by an elderly, sinister-seeming woman, called "the Eye."

Gustine has a baby, born with its heart on the outside of its chest (ectopia)--the beating muscle is covered only in a thin membrane. Gustine loves her child and tries to care for it, in the grinding poverty and filth of the crowded rooming house. She is convinced that the Eye is dangerous.

The young physician, Dr. Henry Chiver, is intent on making his name as a scientific doctor and educator through dissections. Cholera breaks out in the town to challenge his skill; even when confronted with death, however, he perceives an opportunity for research much to the alarm and disgust of citizens who fail to understand the advantages promised by an act of desecration. He is both attracted to Gustine and appalled by her profession; but when he discovers the secret of her child he sees yet another opportunity and his obsession to become a famous researcher makes him lose sight of all that is appropriate.


With Dickensian squalor and characterization, this story clearly evokes the period and underscores the connections between poverty and illness. The emphasis on the colour blue--dress, baby, cadavers-- recapitulates the haunting epidemic that turns its victims blue. Numerous peripheral characters are well defined --’the Eye’ who is revealed at the last as a victim herself; Dr. Clanny, a medical mentor to Chiver; and Pink, an untended little girl with better judgement than most of her elders. Alas, Chiver’s lax behaviour is brutal, but credibly human.


Grove: Atlantic

Place Published

New York



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