Book Review: Lady of Ashes By Christine Trent
Violet Morgan is a respectable wife in Victorian London, who also happens to be London’s only female undertaker. Married to a puzzling man who inherited his family’s business, Violet is the one who truly has a passion for making sure the deceased are treated with honor, that their families are supported and guided, and that each funeral is arranged and managed in accordance with the deceased’s station in society. Mustn’t skimp on funeral plumes, glass carriages, or professional mourners!
As the Civil War erupts across the pond, the ripples extend to the United Kingdom as political interests and financial scheming impact all levels of London society, from Windsor Palace all the way to Morgan Undertaking. Violet’s husband and brother-in-law become entangled in seemingly nefarious dealings, and as her husband starts to come unhinged, Violet must find a way to maintain her dignity and her business reputation despite the disintegration of her marriage.
Lady of Ashes is crammed full of plot, so much so that it feels a bit overstuffed. In and of itself, Violet’s establishment in the male-dominated undertaking profession would have been quite interesting. However, the books constantly shifts focus, bringing in US and British politics, the foibles of the monarchy, an orphaned waif, a romantic plot line, and a murder mystery. Ultimately, it’s really just too much.
Which is a shame, as there is much to enjoy in Lady of Ashes. Violet is an interesting character, strong and assertive and committed to her profession at a time when society — and the Queen — made clear that a woman’s place is in the home. Seeing Violet navigate her way against the current, stand up for herself, and carry out her undertaking duties with compassion and grace is quite compelling, and if that had remained the chief focus of the book, I think it would have worked much better.
Instead, a great deal of space is devoted to the politic maneuvering of the US ambassadors to the court of Queen Victoria, the high seas dramas involving blockade runners and naval ships, and the marriage of Victoria and Albert. Even Violet’s story is not smooth, as we jump from her marital woes to a train wreck to her adoption of an orphan without much in the way of transition, and each new development in the narrative feels like an abrupt change in the point of the storyline.
Still, I did come away from Lady of Ashes with some interesting new tidbits of historical data. For example, who knew that embalming became more widely practiced in the US during the Civil War, when the bodies of battlefield casualties had to be preserved for their long train journeys home for burial? I also learned a great deal about royal funeral rites, societal rules regarding mourning fashion, and plumbing and foundation problems in Victorian London. The author has clearly done a ton of research for this book, and provides a comprehensive bibliography of historical sources for further reading.
Do I recommend Lady of Ashes? Yes, but with reservations. Violet is a terrific character, and the portrayal of funerary rites in Victorian England is morbidly intriguing. Much of Lady of Ashes is quite fascinating, but overall, I believe it would have been a better book with a tighter focus. As it is, there’s just too much crammed into the plot for it to feel cohesive, and sadly, the end result is that the story feels scattered.