The Crimson Bed, by Loretta Proctor, is a tale of romance and family life set around the fringes of the pre-Raphaelite artistic movement in England in the mid nineteenth century. As such, historical figures such as Rosetti, Ruskin and Millais hover in the background, while the book's focus is on those who circled around them, as artists, art lovers, dealers, or collectors. Art, whether painted or verbal, is central to the plot, along with the pretences that art thrives on, such as contemporary models of humble origin being portrayed as nobility, or tragic heroines.
But Loretta also probes those darker and vastly more damaging pretences which lurk within human relationships. Lies, deceit, and the natural urge to bury past indiscretions all threaten the lives and wellbeing of the characters. Each person has a facet of their past which they would prefer to hide, even knowing the corrosive effect that concealment has on friendship and love. These interlocking secrets increase in their destructive potential through the book, and the central question becomes whether particular relationships can or cannot survive the revelations, as they inevitably surface.
One of the aspects of the book I found most fascinating was its view of society at the time. For a few, the complex web of Victorian social expectations provided reassuring and proper boundaries to conduct. But for many others, it was an arbitrary and constricting prison. But how could it be challenged? For some, the retreat towards a romanticised past appealed. Others wanted to accelerate towards a different future. Still others wanted to directly subvert the status quo by means of acts that society deemed illegal or immoral. The world of artists in The Crimson Bed tried all of these, and more.
Technically, the Crimson Bed has been well prepared, with a mere handful of formatting slips. I found that the last few chapters, while crucial in completing some aspects of the plot, seemed a bit disjointed, and I wonder if the transition from continuous action to future consequence could have been smoother. However, this did not detract from my enjoyment of the book, and my appreciation of a world I knew little about.