house-of-velvet-and-glassAn absolutely wonderful historical novel set in two periods and places.  One period, late 1868 in Shanghai, and the other mid teens, 1900s in Boston, Mass.

It is about the sinking of the Titanic, spiritualism as practiced in that day, pre-war Boston, and a smidge of paranormalism.  Is that a word?  Well, it is now, because I said so.

Sibyl Allston, a young woman in her twenties, lives with her widowed father and younger brother.  Her mother and younger sister died in 1912 while traveling aboard the Titantic on its maiden voyage.

Sibyl’s mother had been a devotee of spiritualism, attending seances at the private quarters of Mrs. Dee, a celebrated medium, taking Sibyl with her on many occasions.  After the deaths of the two women, Sibyl continue attending, hoping to contact her dead family members.  She is given a small globe, almost a toy, as a scrying glass.

The story goes back and forth between her father’s experience as a young man in Shanghai as a sailor, before he made his fortune in shipping, and events in Boston after the sinking of the Titanic and before World War I started, and events on board the ship as the mother was active in getting her younger daughter married off, since those efforts failed with the unmarried Sibyl.

Sibyl’s brother is kicked out of his university for unbecoming conduct with a young woman of uncertain background, and is found badly beaten one night in the lodging of the girlfriend.  The Allston family takes the young girl under their wing, and the girl takes Sibyl to an opium den, where Sibyl tries it and experiences amazing visions while looking at the scrying glass.    She thinks she sees the ship and the events leading up to its sinking.

Back in Shanghai, her father had the same experience when a fellow sailor took him to an opium den, of seeing the future of a couple of his shipmates.

So it is all about having the ‘sight’,  and what Sibyl continues to see in her glass,  opiate addiction, which was even in those days very common, as the stuff was found in cough medicines, sleeping pills,  tooth drops for babies.  At the time of the setting of the story, the government had begun to set up regulations concerning its use.

There is an unresolved romantic interest with the son of her father’s business partner,  and a medium who claims, in spite of the flagrant bells and whistles of the seances she produces, that she really does have the ‘sight’, but that her customers expect a more flamboyant experience, and so she provides that for them.

Great story, loved it!   Just could not put it down!

Here are some interesting facts for you:

Titanic’s loss was shocking because it revealed the real ramifications of a wealth disparity that is staggering even by today’s standards.  The fact is, as first-class women passengers, Eulah [the sister] and Helen [the mother] Allston would almost certainly have made it into a lifeboat in real life.  Only four first-class women passengers did not.  By comparison, the mortality rate for all third-class passengers, including children, was nearly 75 percent.  A first-class parlor suite ticket in 1912 cost $4,350, which some estimate to be the equivalent of over $90,000 in modern dollars — more akin to purchasing a ticket to outer space on Virgin Galactic.  …. the clear relationship between wealth and the odds of survival.

And about the drugs

This period saw technocratic problem-solving at the government level, such as the passage of the Harrison Act in 1914, which brought opiates and cocaine under federal regulation for the first time, culminating in the better-known Volstead Act of 1919, which ushered in Prohibition.


Katherine Howe is the author of the best seller The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane,  which I started reading a while ago and was having trouble getting into it, so I set it aside.  I can see now that I will have to go back and give it another shot, because that title alone just screams READ ME!




One comment on “THE HOUSE OF VELVET AND GLASS by Katherine Howe

  1. […] by the same author?  Of course you do, your memory is not THAT full of holes.  I discussed it here.   In that historical novel, the story revolved around the Titanic.  And spiritualism.  And […]

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