Katherine Howe’s The House of Velvet and Glass is a complicated book to describe after the last page is read. Set in 1915 in Boston, situated about evenly between the sinking of theTitanic, it is the story of Sybil Allston and how those two events shape her being.
Sybil, you see, lost a mother and a sister on the Titanic, a sister who was younger but still ahead of her in the all-important social scene. Sybil became the mistress of her father’s house when her mother perished and she became surrogate mother to the youngest in the family, brother Harlan “Harley”. Harley, inevitably shaped by the social world his family lived and the loss they suffered, becomes the bane of just about everyone’s existence as he gets kicked out of Harvard, dates a girl he most assuredly should not know, and throws himself into preparations for the oncoming war. His father doesn’t seem to know what to do with him, because his father knows more about him than he can let on, and it’s up to Sybil to look after him. Mostly futilely.
Sybil distracts herself with Spiritualism, an interest she shared with her mother, and seances at the home of one Mrs. Dee. Mrs. Dee, a character right out of Hollywood casting, gifts Sybil with a scrying glass, apparently not to be confused with a mere crystal ball, and the glass is housed in a velvet lined box – which is presumably where the title of the novel comes from – but Sybil finds it useless.
Until Harley’s stage actress girlfriend takes the prim and proper Sybil to the place she finds inspiration – an opium den in Chinatown.
Opium, and the visions that result from opium use, becomes a running thread in the Allston family, one that pulls in the most unlikely characters and weaves seamlessly into the historical accuracy of the time and the place Howe writes about.
There are dropped threads, like a beating Harley receives and how fast Sybil spirals into full-blown addiction, but the story makes up for it. It took me a long time to get through it, but I had to see it through.
If psychics, seances, and liberal drug use (used purposefully but addiction is dealt with, and well) are something you like in rich historical fiction… this book is for you.