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Review: In 'Beautiful Lies' by Clare Clark, a Victorian couple live fast life just this side of scandal

The decade is the late 1880s; the place, London. Queen Victoria is about to celebrate her jubilee. The British Empire is the most powerful force in the world. But the economy is racked by recession, homeless families camp in Trafalgar Square, and a jittery government is preparing for what will be the underside of the jubilee: riots that will be known as Bloody Sunday.

Clare Clark's Beautiful Lies presents us with a couple who would surely be counted among our Beautiful People today: Edward is a dashing member of the House of Commons who has spent a good deal of his adult life in Argentina and owns a sprawling Scottish manor house. He's an unabashed swashbuckler, given to wide-brimmed hats and silver-trimmed capes, but he's also an incorrigible idealist, a member of socialist groups, dedicated to mitigating the sorry lot of the poor. His trophy wife, Maribel, is a great beauty, an aspiring poet and photographer, addicted to Parisian gowns. Their courtship was conducted in a Spanish brothel, but they've floated a cover story, hoping no one will recognize her from some murky night abroad.

Maribel was born in England to a lower-middle-class family. At 13, she ran away to find fame upon the stage but ended up working as a prostitute. There's a baby somewhere, too, which she hasn't told Edward about.

As for Edward, he's addicted to showmanship and risk-taking — he still frequents brothels with enthusiasm. Maribel isn't crazy about this, but she knows better than to confront him about it. She worries, however. There's nothing the tabloid press loves better than a scandal.

Their married life has long ago settled into a pleasant routine, which takes up hundreds of Clare Clark's pages: a dinner party and then a tea and then an exhibition and another dinner party. A spat and then a reconciliation.

All this is played in pleasing counterpart to the life of their best married friends, Arthur and Charlotte, who with her sunny demeanor is the very embodiment of Coventry Patmore's poem Angel in the House. In fact almost all of their friends are civilized and kind.

Except for one Alfred Webster, editor of the Chronicle, a tabloid that lives and breathes scandal. Maribel, to her own shame and disgust, finds herself attracted to him. He's a staunch champion of the poor and one of Edward's most influential backers, but also a smarmy creep who fingers pornographic pictures even as he piously extols his invalid wife.

Maribel searches for a career: She "had had a poem accepted for publication," she consoles herself, and her interest in photography becomes invaluable when the odious Webster plots to destroy Edward's family.

The whole novel is carefully constructed and full of wonderful details about the period. You can see, as so many have observed, that the Victorian Age is a mirror image of our own. Edward and Maribel are touching, funny, brave and sweet. It's a pleasure spending time with them.