The Quietness | Stand-Alone | ISBN 9781471401015 | Hot Key Books, 2013 | 2.5 out of 5 Points
“When fifteen-year-old Queenie escapes from the squalid slums of nineteenth-century London, she has no idea about the dangers of the dark world she is about to become embroiled in. Initially thrilled at being taken on as a maid for the seemingly respectable Waters sisters, Queenie comes to realise that something is very wrong with the dozens of strangely silent babies being ‘adopted’ into the household.
Meanwhile, lonely and unloved sixteen-year-old Ellen is delighted when her handsome and charming young cousin Jacob is sent to live with her family. She thinks she has finally found a man to fall in love with and rely on, but when Jacob cruelly betrays her she finds herself once again at the mercy of her cold-hearted father. Soon the girls’ lives become irrevocably entwined in this tension-filled drama. THE QUIETNESS is a novel of friendship and trust in the darkest of settings.”
I thought I would love this book. I’ve been hyping myself up about “The Quietness” since it was published in 2013 but I never got around to reading it until now. And now that I have actually read it I’m not only feeling underwhelmed, I’m feeling sad and angry. I’m feeling betrayed. “The Quietness” with its gorgeous cover and interesting blurb seemed like a book that I would just have to like. I’m not quite sure why I was so certain it would be phenomenal but it’s kind of my own fault I was disappointed. Except not really. Let me explain.
OF FRUIT SELLERS AND RICH GIRLS
I liked “The Quietness” well enough at first. Alison Rattle captures Victorian London quite well, from the squalid slums near Waterloo bridge to the lavish mansions of Bloomsbury and everything in between. “The Quietness” is quite a dark book. The atmosphere is gloomy throughout and that’s where my problems with the book began. It’s so dark, so hopeless and gloomy, it smothers you. I usually like books with a darker atmosphere but “The Quietness” is just overdoing it. There’s no hope at all, nothing good happens to even out all the bad stuff and the more you read, the more you feel somewhat icky, like this book is leaving a stain on you, that’s how gloomy it is. I felt uncomfortable a lot but not in the good way.
Some books aren’t enjoyable at all. Some books make you uncomfortable, they force you to think and immerse yourself in all that darkness and in the end you feel it was worthwhile. “The Pleasures of Men” by Kate Williams was such a book for me. So was “We Were Liars” by E. Lockhart, which I loved so much I can’t even find the words to review it. “The Quietness” however was just dark and unpleasant to read. It wasn’t worthwhile. Just depressing.
It’s basically the story of two young women: One born into absolute poverty but loved by her family, the other the daughter of rich middle class parents but unloved. When their lives intertwine, they find themselves in extreme danger. I liked the premise well enough. It’s an interesting concept and I was hoping for some nice insight into Victorian society, the gap between rich and poor and how the two heroines, Queenie and Ellen, would each deal with their position in life. But “The Quietness” never uses any of its potential at all. It’s shallow as a puddle in your back garden. It never really goes into the workings of Victorian society, its double standards and ideas of ethics, poverty and wealth and that’s a shame since it tries to deal with some heavy topics.
OF VICTORIAN STEREOTYPES AND REALITIES
There’s a rape scene in “The Quietness”. It happens around the 30 percent mark so it’s not really a spoiler. I’m going to talk about it in detail because I was so bothered by the author’s attempt at dealing with such a serious topic so if you’re uncomfortable reading about rape please skip the next few paragraphs. What happens is that Ellen gets raped by someone she trusted and when her father finds out he turns on her. He calls her a whore and tries to get rid of her because he thinks her virtue is ruined. He goes as far as to tell her that she can’t blame “the weaknesses of men” for what happened to her, that it’s basically her own fault.
I’m bothered by this portrayal of a Victorian reaction to rape because it’s wrong from start to finish. The Victorians did not condone rape. Rape was a serious offence and rapists were prosecuted. In 1870, the year this book is set in, a lowly bar maid sued a middle class man for rape and won the process. What I’m getting at is that rape was a serious offence in Victorian times and more often than not Victorians did not put the blame on the victims. I know this will probably surprise you if you don’t know a lot about Victorian society but that’s just my point: Alison Rattle should know a lot about Victorian society. She writes historical fiction. She should do her research, especially when writing about a serious topic like rape. But what she does instead is rely on old stereotypes about the Victorian age and that just won’t do. I don’t blame any reader for believing this but I do blame authors of historical fiction for being lazy enough to just rely on tropes instead of digging deeper and trying to understand Victorian attitudes to gender, female sexuality and rape. Rattle obviously didn’t or she would have handled Ellen’s rape differently.
This is something I noticed time and time again when reading “The Quietness”. In the Victorian age according to Alison Rattle men could do whatever they liked and women could do nothing. Women were always victims, always suffering, always miserable. That’s an easy way to write about Victorian sexism but it’s also wrong and quite honestly absolutely lazy. It was hard being a woman in the 1800s but it’s so much more complex than “men got away with everything and women had no chance at happiness ever”. In fact the “weaknesses of men” Ellen’s father mentions would not have gotten Ellen’s rapist off lightly. Weakness in a man was understood to be a crime all in itself. A man giving in to these weaknesses and raping a woman was basically considered scum. Men could not do as they pleased and get away with it. Women were not always miserable and had no chance at finding happiness ever.
Why do authors of historical fiction like to see women suffer so much? Why can’t we have books about what it was really like being a woman in Victorian England? About all the hardships but also about all the ways a woman could work around it and find happiness still?
I think any historical author’s biggest task is finding a balance between their research and actual Victorian day to day realities, between what Victorian society might’ve deemed ideal and what Victorians actually behaved like. Like so many others Alison Rattle fails horribly at achieving such a balance. What she does is give us “ideal” Victorians. Cardboard cut outs of what we might think Victorians were like: Prudish, strict, stiff, humourless, repressed, hating women… She seems to have forgotten that Victorians were human with human emotions. She doesn’t find any balance between these Victorian tropes and ideals and what it meant to be a human being with feelings who was socialised in Victorian times.
She gives us a Victorian middle class father who finds out his daughter was raped and instead of going after the rapist and pressing charges he calls his daughter a whore and blames her. Because that’s what we think Victorians might’ve done. This might have happened to some girls but it sure as hell wasn’t an everyday reality. And when I read historical fiction, I want to read about everyday realities and real Victorians, not these stereotypes I’ve seen a thousand times before, these “ideal Victorians” based in age old tropes. The Victorian age and its attitudes towards sexuality, gender, bodies and crimes such as rape was much more nuanced and complex than this book wants you to think. And I think it’s a shame the author didn’t bother to delve deeper. But “The Quietness” is shallow, made up of tropes and stereotypes. It might look pretty because Rattle’s writing is good and her idea of the 1870s aesthetic is quite good too, but she apparently doesn’t understand the complexities of Victorian society at all and so “The Quietness” falls flat.
OF TROPES AND SHALLOW CHARACTERS
But this isn’t just true for the history bits unfortunately, it’s also true for the story in itself. If you’ve read any historical fiction set in Victorian England before, you’ll feel like you’ve read “The Quietness” before too at least a dozen times. The novel offers absolutely nothing new to the genre. Everything is a trope, there are zero surprises. I know this sounds like an exaggeration but I mean it: Alison Rattle doesn’t stray from post-Victorian fiction tropes one single time. “The Quietness” is basic historical fiction, maybe enjoyable for someone who has never read a book set in 19th century England before but everyone else and especially fans of the genre will feel like they’ve wasted their time.
The story is predictable in every way. You will know what secret Ellen’s parents are keeping from her immediately. You will know what Ellen will discover in the end of the novel right away too. It wasn’t fun slugging through 280 pages of Ellen and Queenie being all kinds of clueless and trying to figure out stuff that I already knew. And I didn’t know because I’m Sherlock Holmes and can guess plot twists before they even happen, I knew because Rattle uses the exact same storylines dozens of books have used before without even trying to make them fresh or original. And to add insult to injury she also gives you these hints you can’t even ignore. It’s like she’s always winking, always nudging you going: “Did you see what I said there? Don’t you wanna know what I mean by this?” But you’ve already figured it out because her hints aren’t hints, she’s basically giving away her own plot twists.
I’m pretty sure you can already tell from the blurb what’s up with the babies at Queenie’s new employer’s house. The thing is, if you’ve done some research on Victorian era crime as I have since that’s basically what I do, you’ll know what’s happening here anyway the moment Queenie’s employer utters her name: Margaret Waters. When it comes to infamous Victorians nothing can surprise me and I’m pretty sure that name is familiar to you too if you’ve been interested in the dark underbelly of Victorian society before. But even if you have no idea who this woman was, you’ll figure out what she does way before Queenie does and that’s not just because “The Quietness” is predictable but also because Rattle tells you. I could have dealt with the tropes and the boring old storylines if there had at least been any tension but no. Alison Rattle won’t have it.
The thing is, tropes are popular for a reason and it’s no crime to use them now and then as long as you use them to build upon, as long as you add some nice twists to them that make your book suspenseful. Rattle just doesn’t and that’s what makes “The Quietness” so bland. That and the characters having no depth whatsoever. They’re also bland cardboard cut outs. Ellen is the lonely daughter of rich parents, leading a quiet and uneventful life. She has no aspirations whatsoever, no goals. All we find out about her is that she likes to read but that’s all. Queenie isn’t much better, we also don’t ever find out what she enjoys or who she really is but at least she had an aspiration I could understand and relate to: Queenie wants to work her way out of poverty and she does everything in her might to achieve this goal. I liked that and I liked Queenie but in the end she was also not much of a character, we learn nothing about her really.
OF UNFORGIVABLE ENDINGS
What bothered me most however was Ellen. She is the most passive character I ever had the displeasure to read about. She does nothing. She lets everything happen to her, but things never happen because of her. I was waiting for her to bristle, to stand up for herself, to become active and stand her ground against all the people who did her wrong but she never really did. The plans she makes are half-hearted and she never goes through with them. Instead she has everything handed to her, mostly by Queenie. And here’s where the book turned really ugly. I’m going to give away the ending and I usually don’t do that but I have to so I can explain why this book is getting such a low rating from me. Please only click the spoiler if you have no intentions of reading “The Quietness” or already have read it.
There are some other weird “messages” in this book I didn’t really like. For instance Ellen is considering getting an abortion but then doesn’t when her old maid calls her evil and a child murderer for even thinking about it. Yes, that’s probably an authentic reaction to abortion for an old Victorian woman but this book is for modern day teenagers and this opinion on abortions is never challenged in anyway. They’re bad and they make you a child murderer, even though you never gave your consent to carrying a baby in the first place, even though Ellen’s been raped and is traumatised to discover she is pregnant against her will aged fifteen. What kind of message, intentional or not, is that? It doesn’t belong in YA fiction at all. I’m giving Rattle the benefit of the doubt here. I’m assuming she just wanted to have the maid react like an old woman in 1870 would react to abortion but it’s still skeevy and demonising.
In the end “The Quietness” left a bitter taste in my mouth. It’s unoriginal and tropey, the author apparently doesn’t understand Victorian society at all, it’s predictable, the characters have no depths whatsoever and the author’s treatment of one character in particular left me deeply uncomfortable and angry. The thing is, the ending might’ve worked, had the book been more nuanced. Had the characters felt more real, had Victorian society and its attitude towards gender, sexuality and bodies been portrayed more authentically, more complex and nuanced. This book could have been an insightful historical drama about poverty, Victorian society and what it meant to be a woman in the 1800s but it’s just not. It’s shallow and way too black and white, there aren’t any nuances at all.
I’m giving this book 2.5 points. One point for Queenie, who I really liked despite her lack of depth, one point for the pretty writing style and the dark Victorian atmosphere, half a point for the premise that could’ve been so much more with a lot more work and research. I would have given the book a point more because it’s literally basic historical fiction. It’s readable even though it’s bland, it’s atmospheric and even though you see all the plot twists coming, it’s entertaining enough, if not enjoyable because it’s way too dark and depressing, especially for Young Adult fiction. But I have to knock the rating down because of that ending and all the weird messages. “The Quietness” made me uncomfortable in the very worst way and I still feel icky thinking about it, even though it’s been days since I finished it.
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