Two of the most popular sites in neo-Victorian fiction are brothels and insane asylums. Besides the obvious appeals to sensationalism (or what Marie-Luise Kohlke calls "sexsationalism"), the neo-Victorian brothel and asylum parody the stereotypical Victorian home and its associated rhetorics of purity, care, and order. In the neo-Victorian brothel and the asylum, exploited female (and sometimes child) bodies are on full display, instead of clothed in middle- and upper-class propriety. Patriarchy loses its benevolence and turns overtly violent; so too does capitalism, which here deals in flesh. Maternal and paternal care turn into systems of overt domination hidden, at best, behind transparent sentimental gush.
In Essie Fox's Elijah's Mermaid, both the brothel and the insane asylum figure prominently, as do a host of other neo-Victorian tropes, including male monstrosity, pornography, and filth. However, Fox tries to redeem Rule #5 by eschewing neo-Victorian realism for the logic of melodrama and fairy tale: the villains range from the moustache-twirling to the outright ogreish, and the narrative is loaded with betrayals, secret identities, hidden parents, incest (sort of), and utopian endings. And, as it happens, rather a lot of water. The somewhat complicated plot follows the travails of Pearl, a young woman with webbed feet rescued as a baby from the Thames by the villainous Tip Thomas, and Elijah and Lily, two orphans raised far away from London by their grandfather, Augustus Lamb. Pearl, raised in a brothel called "The Mermaid" by the syphilitic madam, Mrs. Hibbert, finds herself sold as an adolescent to the increasingly-insane and mermaid-obsessed painter, Osborne Black (based, as Fox notes in her historical appendices, on Richard Dadd, albeit with a touch of mythical John Ruskin). Elijah, who accidentally sees Pearl before her sale, becomes obsessed with her himself, and is finally reunited with her when, as a photographer, he becomes Osborne's assistant and occasional model. Lily, meanwhile, discovers that not all is right with their fantastically generous uncle, Frederick Hall. Illicit sex, incarceration, attempted murder, and various revelations follow.
Like many neo-Victorian novels, Elijah's Mermaid puts multiple systems of representation into dialogue, from fairy tales to painting to photography. Up until the very end, the novel emphasizes the "dark" side of fairy tales--worlds of pain and cruelty instead of escapism and happy endings. Mrs. Hibbert maintains a "Book of Events" that crafts Pearl's history in terms of miracles and fantasy, a far cry from her actual sordid origins, but she also maintains a collection of S&M pornography for the delectation of her male clients; both instances link male desire to the act of storytelling. The fantastic "liberates" in more than one way. Moreover, the link between the fantastic and the sordid at the Mermaid repeats itself elsewhere, as in the debased exhibit of wonders the young Elijah and Lily visit at Cremorne, or in the abuse Osborne Black inflicts on Pearl (and others) to create his mermaid paintings. In general, fairy tales provide little in the way of escape; Augustus Lamb's own mermaid fairy tale (itself meant to evoke, as Fox also points out, Hans Christian Andersen's "The Little Mermaid"), originally a cautionary story in which the mermaid dies, eventually gets an odd happy ending when she is reunited with a "merman" who may be "her father, or lover" (119). (Ah, the joys of foreshadowing.) What sort of happily ever after is this--romance or eternal childhood? Similarly, Pearl moves through a world in which the deliberately unrealistic characters are, by and large, villainous, most notably in the case of Tip Thomas, whose whiskers are like "pale tusks" and whose fingernails are "like knives" (40)--part ogre, part Rumplestiltskin. Later, when Lily begins writing fairy tales of her own, they strike Pearl as "somewhat frightening" (356), shot through with acts of violence that translate realistic abuses into fantastic terms. The commodified female bodies on sale at the Mermaid find their aesthetic equivalent in Osborne Black's endlessly-repeated mermaid paintings--an echo of Christina Rossetti's "In an Artist's Studio"--but Black's ideal is an asexual or prepubescent female body, perpetually virginal. "He does not want my limbs too round," Pearl complains, "He does not want my breasts too large. He hates the sight of my hair, down there" (125). Within the novel's multiple fantasy narratives, mermaids turn out to signify rampant sexuality or monstrosity or sexual inaccessibility--sometimes all at once.
Despite all the mermaids, water rarely figures in this novel as anything positive. People commit suicide in the water; they have to be rescued from water; they are tortured by water (Pearl is subjected to immersion therapy in the asylum). Osborne's house itself is rotted through by water, filled with an oppressive "stench of damp" (199) that hints at the aesthetic decay lurking within the repetitive paintings. Later, Pearl will see the paintings "dripping with slime" (227), being figuratively eaten away by their own subject matter. Even when Pearl stumbles towards water near the end of the novel, hoping that it will "wash my sins away" (345), she needs to be rescued before she drowns while giving birth. (This moment invokes the transfiguration of Tom the chimney sweep in Charles Kingsley's The Water-Babies, one of the novel's other inspirations, which Lily references near the beginning .) The imagery seems baptismal, but Pearl's obsession with sin is a delusional aftereffect of her time in the asylum, and her near-drowning is redemptive in psychological instead of sacred terms. Despite all the Biblical or religiously-significant echoes in the character names--Lamb, Pearl, Lily, Elijah--the book locates salvation very much in this world.
Unlike the more take-charge Lily, Pearl spends much of the novel undergoing a litany of neo-Victorian abuses. Tip, who may or may not be gay (and is, we eventually discover, a rather near relation), threatens her sexually; Mrs. Hibbert, her exploited and exploiting mother-figure, sells her to Osborne Black at the age of fourteen. As I said, the environment at the Mermaid parodies Victorian domesticity, complete with a literal marriage market. Once sold to Osborne Black, who informs her that "[y]our destiny is to be my muse" (94), Pearl finds herself as objectified as any of the prostitutes back at the Mermaid. Unlike Elijah's photographic projects, which involve the active participation of the entire family as both assistants and models, Osborne's mermaid paintings rely on the total subjugation of the model to the artist. "You are my muse," Osborne insists when Pearl volunteers to help him, "[y]ou are nothing else!" (117) The "muse" here is reduced to the passive object of representation, her body subjected to her husband's increasingly despotic regime of starvation rations, her appearance "drawn and exhausted, strangely old" (174). Although Osborne's cruelty provides the rational explanation for Pearl's changing appearance, there's also a "magical" one lurking just beneath. In effect, Osborne transfers Pearl's vitality to a mechanical mock-up, an exquisite Pinocchio or golem of sorts, with all Pearl's features but "a mermaid's tail in place of legs" (175)--a wind-up doll that, once Pearl is falsely incarcerated in the asylum, also winds up with Pearl's shorn hair. The mechanical mermaid is the reductio ad absurdum of the neo-Victorian woman, the pure object, and ultimately substitutes for Pearl herself. Notably, Osborne does not have sex with his wife ("thank goodness," says the reader after certain revelations are made at the end...), and his mermaid obsession indexes his middle-aged fear of any adult female sexuality at all; his mermaids are simultaneously erotic yet impenetrable, inaccessible below the waist. Yet before the reader becomes too self-satisfied about diagnosing Osborne's sexual issues, the modern-day journalistic "conclusion" misreads Elijah's and Pearl's (now Blanche) new domestic life in Italy as an "open marriage" (385) when the reader knows that the domestic circle now includes Elijah's long-lost mother and one of Osborne Black's former victims. Gaps in the historical record lead to fantastic distortions of the narrative. Moreover, twenty-first century sexual "enlightenment" misses the actual Victorian radicalism of their new arrangements, with the "fallen woman" comfortably integrated into the bosom of the home and unrelated men treated as family instead of erotic threat. Here, then, we are left with a question: to what extent does the modern reader turn the past into their own wind-up doll of sorts, imposing our vision on what was once lived, resistant experience?