Gerri Brightwell

"The Dark Lantern"

(Reviewed by Eleanor Bukowsy MAR 23, 2008)

"At times it's hard to breathe in this house, let alone eat.  This is what you sell when you go into service, she thinks, freedoms that the family upstairs can't imagine being without.  To talk when you choose to, to go out when you like, to decide what you will eat, to sit down with a book and spend a whole afternoon reading simply because you want to.  A servant is not supposed to mind every minute of her day being laid out for her."

The Dark Lantern by Gerri Brightwell

Gerri Brightwell's The Dark Lantern opens in London in 1893. Sixteen-year-old Jane Wilbred, an orphan whose mother was hanged after being convicted of murder, has forged a letter in order to obtain a position as second housemaid for the Bentley family.  She left her job working for a heartless and domineering mistress and traveled for five hours by train, hoping that her new situation will be a step up for her.  Little does this naïve creature realize that she is a fly about to be caught in a spider's intricate web.  Jane will soon settle into an arduous and backbreaking routine.  She will be exhausted from her daily grind of hard labor followed by a few hours of rest in a freezing room.  She will have almost no time to herself and her hands will become red and raw from incessant scrubbing and cleaning. 

The mistress of the Bentley household is an elderly woman who is lying on her deathbed.  Her son, Robert, and his wife of four years, Mina, have left Paris to take care of matters during his mother's illness.  Robert and Mina are almost penniless.  They have been living on money that Mina inherited, but their funds are almost gone.  Although he does not earn any income, Robert spends his time promoting anthropometry (the science of identifying criminals using body measurements), which he learned from the esteemed Monsieur Bertillon in France.  Robert would like the English government to adopt this system, which he claims is superior to dactylography (fingerprinting) as a means of identification, but he has not yet convinced British officials that his method is both efficient and accurate.

The Dark Lantern is a multilayered story in which Brightwell exposes the lies, deceptions, hypocrisy, inequitable class system, and restrictive gender roles in nineteenth century British society.  Almost everyone has something to hide; servants spy on their masters and vice versa.  Those harboring secrets live in fear that they will be found out and they desperately resort to bribery and subterfuge to avoid exposure.  In turn, those who are in a position to expose the guilty recognize an opportunity to engage in blackmail.  With pitch-perfect dialogue and excellent descriptive writing, the author delves into each character's inner thoughts, weaknesses, and vulnerabilities, laying their psyches bare.  She is particularly successful in her indictment of the enslavement of the "lower classes" by the ladies and gentlemen who underpaid and overworked them.  In addition, she makes clear that in the nineteenth century, women with few resources at their disposal were often forced into compromising positions.

The characters are beautifully delineated:  The reader will identify with the unfortunate Jane, who quickly finds herself a lamb among wolves; Mina Bentley frantically tries to hide her shady past from her husband and fears that her vengeful enemies may be on her trail; Sarah is a cunning servant who quickly gains power over Jane and shamelessly takes advantage of her; Robert is madly in love with Mina but he is, in many ways, an impractical and clueless individual; Victoria Dawes claims to be the widow of Robert's brother, Henry, but could she be a con artist who wants to steal Henry's estate from Mina and Robert?;  Teddy is a young man who appears to fancy Jane, but is he genuinely interested in her or does he have ulterior motives?  Brightwell skillfully balances her large cast and intricate plot and she concludes her suspenseful novel with some fascinating (although not entirely realistic) twists and turns.  The Dark Lantern is a gripping family saga, an enthralling and atmospheric mystery, and an absorbing look at the thorny relationships between masters and servants in Victorian England.

  • Amazon readers rating: from 5 reviews

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About the Author:

Gerri BrightwellGerri Brightwell was born in England. She has a doctorate in literature from the University of Minnesota. About Us | Subscribe | Review Team | History | ©1998-2014