Reviewed by Claire Hamner Matturro
Well Dressed Lies
By Carrie Hayes
September 2023, Paperback, 310 pages, ISBN-13: 979-8218962784
In the engrossing literary historical novel, Well Dressed Lies, Carrie Hayes combines her considerable talents with precise research and a vivid imagination to recreate the world of London in 1877-84. There, the real-life former suffragettes and scandal-ridden Victoria Woodhull and Tennessee Claflin, have fled to start over. This book is a sequel to Naked Truth: Or Equality, The Forbidden Fruit: A Novel (2020) in which Hayes first introduces the two bigger-than-life sisters, their family, their sometimes sordid, or at least sketchy past, and their varied associates. Vicky and Tennie as they are called by friends are surely among the most fascinating women in American history. Vicky was the first female presidential candidate in the USA in 1872 (before women could vote), and the sisters opened the first female brokerage firm in NYC, ran a progressive newspaper, advocated for women’s voting rights and free love. Vicky, the older of the two sisters, and Tennie were also spiritualists and had varied, passionate affairs, including Tennie’s with the wealthy, much older Cornelious Vanderbilt. This part of their story is told in the absorbing Naked Truth. The equally absorbing Well Dressed Lies picks up the story of the resilient sisters soon after the financial collapse of 1873 and the general economic depression that followed.
In Well Dressed Lies, the sisters’ finances are in disarray after the economic collapse wiped out their brokerage firm. Temporary salvation comes from an unexpected source. As part of a scheme, or bribery, to keep Tennie from testifying against him in a disputed will case, William Vanderbilt (son and heir of Cornelious) provides Tennie with a generous sum but only if she leaves the USA. Gathering her dignity, her sister, and parents, Tennie and family move to London in 1877, where they rent a less than palatial house and try to find their way into the proper social circles. Due to the many scandals associated with them, and the frequent salacious gossip about the women, they are sometimes belittled and rudely rebuffed. A failed dinner party with multiple rejections because of libelous rumors is particularly haunting in its description and in its effects. As the two sisters orbit London society, however, some doors open.
Keenly aware that Vanderbilt’s bequest-with-strings will not last forever, the sisters begin to cast about for a way to make a living—including, perhaps, advantageous marriages. Yet, at ages 42 and 32, and with their notoriety working against them, their quests to reinvent themselves proves hard despite their beauty and charm.
Vicky’s happenchance meeting with a man she comes gradually to believe will be the great love of her life adds romance to the story. Yet their relationship is not without its share of complications and obstacles, including the contempt the man’s family directs at Vicky. Tennie’s own quest for love takes many a sharp turn in the plot, and she too suffers painful rebukes.
While the sisters dominate the focus of the novel, they meet and interact with some equally captivating characters, from a snide and manipulative real-life Henry James, to the controversial, erratic real-life publisher James Gordon Bennet Jr, and a headstrong, sexually bold, hedonistic duchess with whom Tennie becomes close to—perhaps dangerously close— despite their differences in social rank. That this duchess is fictional makes her no less fascinating, especially as the author discloses in her end notes that the duchess is based upon a real person.
Secrets, deceptions, misunderstandings, class, and jealousies all play a part in the plot. Family members, including an artistic nephew, Vicky’s plain, young daughter, also contribute to the story. Despite the fact Vicky and Tennie sometimes disagree and have a heartbreaking fight at one point, their devotion to each other is strong, and conveyed throughout the story. Which characters are real or fictional, and what happened to the real ones, is briefly addressed by the author at the end of the novel.
The writing in Well Dressed Lies is wonderfully well done at an intelligent level and with a formal tone that fits the time, place, and circumstances of the story. The language is rich, pleasing, and in places, appropriately lyrical. World-building is superb—with the English weather, streets, countryside, and architect so well drawn as to make readers feel like they are there. Seemingly small details add realism and appeal to the novel. The pacing moves forward in a natural flow, never dawdling or meandering, and the characters are drawn with such insight and precision it is almost as if the author lived among them. Carrie Hayes recreates a mesmerizing world, peopled with a wide assortment of equally fascinating people, with many social nuances and snobberies exposed.
A fine, endlessly captivating book, Well Dressed Lies is both educational and entertaining and well worthy of praise. It would be a great choice for a book club. Literary historical / women’s literature at its finest with many a beguiling passage, Well Dressed Lies deserves a broad readership.
Author Carrie Hayes, born in New York City, grew up around journalists, idealists, and rule breaking women. An avid reader with varied career paths, including teaching, her debut novel, Naked Truth was an Editor’s Choice in the Historical Novel Review. Visit her at https://carriehayeswrites.com/.
About the Reviewer: Claire Hamner Matturro has been a journalist, lawyer, organic blueberry farmer, and college instructor. She is the author of eight novels, including a series published by HarperCollins. She’s an associate editor at Southern Literary Review and lives in Florida. Her poetry appears in various publications.