The Dark Lantern
Gerri Brightwell

You’re off the edge of the map, mate. Here there be spoilers.

I…………really have no idea what made me think of this book again. I first found it on a shelf at the library somewhere around 2013, before I started tracking my reading with the same regularity with which I breathe, thought it was okay, and didn’t spend too much time thinking about it after that initial reading. Then for some reason it popped up in my head this past November, one thing led to another, and I ended up ordering a copy. And after all that, it’s still okay. But there are books that can live with me forever, whether I particularly liked them or not, and this happens to be one of them for some strange reason that I can neither understand nor articulate. Long story short, it’s not great, but I’m not unhauling it and I don’t know why.

There’s a lot going on in this book, but the keystone – at least as far as the bulk of the characters is concerned – is the day English gentleman Robert Bentley brings his awful wife to London. (Sorry, Mina, but you’re kind of a bitch.) Her original name is unknown because she was orphaned young and “adopted” by a con artist who groomed her as his mistress while simultaneously using her to fleece lonely millionaires. He presumably had more than one grift, but his most successful one seems to have been an investment scam, which he ran under the names Arnold Flyte and Arthur Fleet (among many others). Posing as Mina’s father, he would betroth Mina to their mark and then persuade his prospective son-in-law to invest an outrageous amount of money in gold or silver mines before taking Mina away and leaving their target in the dust. Currently known as Flyte, he has been behind bars for the last several years; however, that time is now coming to an end, and he is on the cusp of freedom. In his absence, Mina has been living the good life in France after raiding Flyte’s house safe and reinventing herself as a young woman of means, though she retains a quiet fear of Flyte’s release.

With Flyte temporarily out of the way, Mina and Robert have spent the last several years in Paris, where Robert devoted himself to the developing field of anthropometry under the tutelage of Alphonse Bertillon while Mina footed all the bills using the mysterious fortune whose provenance Robert apparently never thought to question. Now, though, Robert’s elderly mother is dying, which has forced him to return to London to look after her property. Mina reluctantly accompanies him for lack of a socially acceptable excuse, knowing that the move will put her within reach of both Flyte and a large portion of his customer base. This is supposed to be temporary, as Robert’s elder brother Henry is expected to return from India to settle their mother’s affairs and assume his role as the head of the family, but Mina abruptly becomes the new mistress of the Bentley house when Henry unexpectedly drowns and Mrs. Bentley finally expires. Despite her pleas to return to Paris, where she feels safe, Robert insists with equal vehemence on staying in London, where he hopes to create a paid position for himself as England’s leading expert on anthropometry. With Flyte’s money running out and more expenses coming in, Mina tries to rein in costs, but this sets her at odds with the servants, who refer to her as “Mrs. Robert” to distinguish her from her mother-in-law.

While Mina butts heads with the staff, sixteen-year-old Jane Wilbred claws her way out of the country town of Teignton and makes her way to London as the newest addition to the Bentley household staff: Mina recently fired one of the housemaids in a fit of paranoia, and put up an ad for her position in the paper. Jane answered the call, and, finding her current employer’s reference letter (referred to as a “character”) satisfactory, Mina hired her via correspondence. There’s just one problem: Jane is the daughter of convicted murderer Martha Wilbred, which in this era is enough to bar her from employment in any respectable place. She was raised in an orphanage and begrudgingly trained as a housemaid by the wealthy Reverend and Mrs. Saunders, who only agreed to take her on when the orphanage matron trotted out the Christian Duty card. In the time since Jane’s hire, they have gone out of their way to make her feel tainted, unclean, completely separate. Despite their open disdain, Mrs. Saunders deliberately sabotages Jane’s character by disclosing her parentage, presumably to save herself the trouble of having to train and break a new girl from scratch; however, Jane intercepts the letter before it is sent, and, reading its contents, forges a new one in its place. Unfortunately for Jane, the new job comes with a slew of unforeseen complications, among them her fellow servants. On the first day she falls prey to Sarah, the conniving first housemaid, who gets into her relative confidence by helping her cover up a tired blunder that could potentially have cost Jane both her job and her character; on the second she unwittingly lets a burglar into the house, mistaking him for Robert. Both of these incidents keep Jane terrified and unsure of her position, in addition to being saddled with more work than one person can reasonably do.

Already fearful for her safety, Mina spirals into paranoid anxiety after the burglary, which she instinctively knows is connected to Flyte. Robert draws very different conclusions: he assumes that the burglar was a fingerprinting expert looking to discredit his upcoming presentation to the Troup Committee, which will most likely decide the fate of anthropometry in England. The household is shoved even farther off its track when a young woman arrives on its doorstep, claiming to be Henry’s bereaved widow. Though Mina welcomes Victoria’s arrival cordially enough, a lifetime of scamming the wealthy has made her suspicious of everybody, and Victoria’s widowhood is not supported by any sort of evidence. (It’s worth noting that Henry actually did propose to Victoria during the crossing from England so her story isn’t entirely a lie, but they were never actually married.) Mina therefore orders Jane – who was purposely hired because of the intelligence she unintentionally displayed in forging her character, albeit badly – to spy on Victoria and report on her every move. After a frightening encounter in a shop, Mina also sets Jane to spy on David Popham, a former mark who could potentially bring down the new life she has built for herself. With no information to go on besides a vague order to bring back any and all information she can, Jane carries out her task as best she can, but Mina’s carefully laid plans backfire when Jane falls for Edward “Teddy” Knight, Popham’s cute valet.

Meanwhile, Robert’s attempts to introduce anthropometry to the English criminal justice system are not going particularly well: fingerprinting is faster and easier, though it currently lacks any sort of cataloguing system, but anthropometry is highly specific, time-consuming, and not especially forgiving of user error. By sheer coincidence, he has been piloting an anthropometry program in the local prison, where the incarcerated Flyte has been acting as his assistant; while Flyte is quietly competent, however, the guards Robert has been training are not. For all his protestations that anthropometry rules and fingerprinting drools, he cannot get around its need for extraordinary precision, nor persuade the powers that be that anthropometry is the way to go. His presentation to the Troup Committee is sabotaged by a rival anthropometrist before it is even given, and an impromptu live demonstration on a suspected escapee also fizzles without any positive result. Worse – though he has no idea of the storm that is quietly brewing, because anthropometry is more important – Popham sends Mina a letter affirming that he recognizes her as the woman who humiliated him several years ago, and threatening to expose her past to Robert by means of the love letters and shareholder certificates that would definitively prove her involvement in Flyte’s scams.

As Robert muddles through his self-appointed mission to Bring Anthropometry To England, Mina tries to juggle Victoria, the servants, Popham’s quiet blackmail, and the looming threat of Flyte, whose minions she suspects of spying on her. She tries to neutralize Popham by bribing Teddy to bring her the receipts, but her spinning plates all come crashing to the ground when she throws Jane onto the street, convinced that she has been selling information to Flyte. This single act destroys her entire plan without her realizing it: though she assumed Teddy was using Jane to gather information on Mina on Popham’s behalf, Teddy is in fact genuinely in love with Jane, and he goes after her the minute he learns she’s been dismissed, taking the evidence with him. With no other options, Mina pretends to go along with Popham’s demands, only to get captured at the last minute by Flyte. Upon learning that Mina has spent every cent that he’d “earned,” Flyte pushes her into the dark waters of the Thames and lets her sink.

In the aftermath of Mina’s disappearance, Robert runs himself ragged looking for her, but falls into despair when he realizes that all his knowledge is useless when he can’t even use it to identify a body that might or might not belong to his wife. Already smarting from having to ask a fingerprinter for help, he learns the full truth of Mina’s past when Popham spills the beans out of sheer spite. With nothing left to live for, Robert takes to drinking too much and eating too little, letting himself waste away as he pines for Mina. Victoria takes advantage of the chaos in the house to quietly slip away, taking part of the Bentley inheritance with her, while Sarah is framed for the theft of Mina’s jewelry, which were in fact stolen by another servant, and arrested for lack of any other handy suspect. Elsewhere, Jane and Teddy leave London and open a little B&B in the more peaceful town of Torquay, and Mina somehow survives her almost-drowning and steps into a new life as Madame Dumontet, a widowed cook-for-hire. Seven years later, with her time in the Bentley house no more than a whisper and her first child on the way, Jane burns Popham’s documents, finally burying Mina’s past for good.

That’s a lot of information, so here’s my thoughts in summary format: The book is too busy. The writing is fine. I wouldn’t call it either good or bad. I would like some explanation of what Sarah does when she leaves the house for hours at a time, besides apparently selling information to Flyte and/or his minions. All of the characters are awful, except Jane and Teddy. All the same, there is something so addicting about this book, and about others like it. For some reason I always fall hard for a foggy Victorian story and it makes no damn sense at all, because I can guarantee that if I were transported back to Victorian London right this second I would absolutely hate it. This, for me, is the main selling point of the book: it would not have been the same if it had been set in the modern era. I am, and always have been, a lifestyle stan. I love reading about how other people live their lives, which is part of the reason I also fell for A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (Betty Smith) when I first read it in eighth grade. I can’t say I’ve ever been particularly invested in Mina and Robert, who are (1) boring and (2) assholes, but I have always loved reading about Jane’s routine as a maid, from the first time I picked up the book to now. I can’t explain this fascination with cooking- and cleaning-based content; I just know that I’ve been this way even before I stumbled onto YouTube lifestyle vlogs.

About my earlier comment on Mina’s personality: I will absolutely not take that back. I say this knowing perfectly well that therapy was not a thing in Victorian England, and I would never have wished Flyte on Mina, or on any other woman, for that matter. She did not deserve the abuse he dealt her throughout her life. And, now that we’ve got that out of the way, my opinion of her remains unchanged. She is her husband’s daughter, and her husband is the most manipulative, abusive piece of shit in the world at this point in fictional time and space. Most of her faults cannot be blamed on her because of the breadth of the trauma inflicted on her, and it is impossible to say who she would have been without it. Even so, it is difficult to get in her corner when she unapologetically plans to destroy Jane’s entire future just for her personal peace of mind. To be completely fair, it takes an extraordinary kind of person to rise above the kind of upbringing she had, and Mina is not that kind of person. She’ll do anything and throw anyone under the bus for the sake of her own survival – again, trauma – which is why I find it bizarre that she draws the line at using her genuinely terrible first marriage to win the London vs. Paris argument with Robert. No offense, but I wouldn’t have thought that was beneath her; nor would I have blamed her if she’d taken that route. I would’ve. I do so hate to victim-blame, but I feel like she could have saved herself a lot of trouble if she’d just told Robert the goddamned truth, at least as far as her fear of Flyte goes. (See also: deliberate miscommunication completely sucks, I will die on this hill.)

On the other hand – and now that I’ve had eleven years to noodle on it – I have to admit that her life is objectively better without her taking care of a giant man-child who happens to be obsessed with anthropometry. Robert is an idiot. I think he might actually be the worst character in the book, and that is a list that includes Flyte. Hear me out: Flyte is Flyte and he is irredeemable, but he is awful because he is supposed to be awful. I don’t get the same feeling from Robert. I don’t think he and Mina were a bad match; in fact, they’re both so blindly entitled and self-obsessed that they’re pretty much meant for each other. But I want to give Robert a good kick, because he just. Doesn’t. Listen. Even if Mina wasn’t telling him the full truth of her antipathy towards London, he should – as the love of her life – have been able to see that her reasons were deeper than the ones she gave him. “I’m just used to Paris” isn’t a good reason to completely shun London, and it doesn’t say much about Robert that he just accepts that while steamrollering her objections. The whole anthropometry thing left me cold, mostly because he was so annoyingly persistent about it, and I also hate that he’s dependent on women to take care of him. At the very end, seven years after Mina finally came to her senses and left him, he just lets himself die inside while somehow still expecting her to show up and apologize??? I’m sorry, but if he really can’t imagine a life without Mina, and if he truly thinks she is the one at fault in this situation, he deserves to rot. In conclusion, Robert and Mina are a perfect match made in Hell, I hate them both, and if Mina really wants her mother-in-law’s servants to stop resenting her then she might start by not shit-talking England every chance she gets.

As for the rest of the characters, they are aggressively unpleasant with a side of nasty. Jane and Teddy are sweethearts; the rest are assholes. Butler Cartwright has a personality that almost seems as if it was written specifically to be aggravating, and he makes it his mission to make Jane’s life as uncomfortable as possible. Price, Mrs. Bentley’s maid, is a lunatic. Mrs. Johnson, the cook, has no definitive persona. Elsie is annoying despite one well-meaning attempt to warn Jane about Sarah. Sarah is a spiteful, manipulative harpy. I mean, Jane is kind of a snot, but she’s gone through so much gaslighting and abuse, and she is so young, that I can’t blame her for that. Likewise for her admittedly irritating tendency to reject food even when she’s starving: we all react to stress differently, and Jane happens to react by losing her appetite. Fair enough. Still and all, if I’d been sitting on the sidelines with a bucket of popcorn you can bet I would’ve been shrieking at her to stuff the food into her mouth and run for it before anybody changed their minds, like, girl, you’ve been underfed your whole life, take advantage of it while it’s there. But mostly I just feel sorry for Jane, who wants to live a good life – who doesn’t? – but is blocked from such a life at every turn while serving ungrateful idiots who casually add extra burdens to her workload without a second thought. I am so glad she finally gets a chance to forge her own path. It would have been so disheartening if she had been a servant for the rest of her life. At the end, she’s even in a place where she can start to think about hiring a couple servants of her own. I like to think that, given her own experiences, she’ll be a kinder mistress than either Mina or Mrs. Saunders. But maybe she won’t be.

And I think, in the end, that is my biggest problem with this book. There’s no character progression. Even when she’s free of Flyte and living the kind of life that doesn’t seem to require secrecy or machinations, Mina is still constantly looking out for ways she can use people to her advantage. She plans to give gifts to the patients of the doctor who employs her, but this is not out of kindness; it is to manipulate the tone of their gossip about her. It’s hard to say if Jane has changed at all, because she is seen so briefly in the final chapter. Robert begins and ends as an adult child who cannot take care of himself, and has no interest in trying. The first time I read this book, I wondered why Robert deserved the ending he got. Eleven years later, I get it. If he, with all his wealth and privilege, cannot be bothered to care about his own fate, we as the readers should not be expected to compensate for that lack. For what it’s worth, I don’t think we are. We merely watch in silence as he drinks himself into a stupor day after day, and yes, it’s sad. But it is the ending he chose, and sometimes there is nothing more to be said.