A New Novel Brings Victorian-Era B.C. to Life

In the Belly of the Sphinx, the new novel by Mayne Island author Grant Buday, follows smart and stubborn Peal Greyland-Smith as she grows up in Victoria’s James Bay neighbourhood in the late 1800s. This charming coming-of-age story, an excerpt of which is published here, brings to life the Victorian era on B.C.’s West Coast.

Pearl was delighted, for not only were her mother and Mr. Gloster keeping company, but she herself had new clothes and a gala at which to display them. She and her mother had spent the entire week finding the right fabric for the right dress of the appropriate style. They’d gone to the Palace, the Gown and Glory, the Victorian Woman. They’d paged through catalogues and it soon became clear that her mother’s concept of what was appropriate differed dramatically from Pearl’s, for what Florence rated elegant Pearl called frumpy, and what Florence called beautiful Pearl called a sack. All the while the clerks looked on with wry indulgence, familiar with such scenes even as they tried to placate them both, smiling first at the daughter and then at the mother.

Pearl said, “This business across the front sags like a fruit picker’s apron stuffed with apples. And does it have to be charcoal?”

“There is burgundy,” offered the seamstress.

Pearl pointed to a different one, all cream and gold, causing her mother to wince and state that it would draw attention. “You want a calm and quiet elegance,” she said, “not to be mistaken for a giant canary.”

“What about the red?”

“I don’t see that resembling a woodpecker is any better.”

“Perhaps I should go in purdah?”

They compromised on a colour the seamstress called Siena Sandstone in September, a golden tan with a black bib and cuffs, a slim side stripe also of black, grey velvet buttons, with a not altogether unbecoming drape that put Pearl in mind of ripples upon a pond at sunset.


“I need a hat.”

They proceeded to Sharpe’s. Entering was as though stepping into an aviary of tropical birds. There was a profusion of plumes and feathers and flowers ranging from the funereal to the fantastic, many involving veils and gauze while some resembled platters of fruit and others included actual stuffed wrens and sparrows. They agreed that Pearl didn’t want anything that exaggerated her height, and for a moment she was taken by a hat resembling a black velvet tiara with a gold fringe. The clerk suggested a circlet of braid currently à la mode in France that included what looked like a set of bat ears.


“What about ribbons?” asked her mother.

She groaned. “I’m not Little Bo Peep.” She could just imagine Miranda rolling her eyes and shaking her head should Pearl show up looking like a child in a nursery rhyme.

She was drawn to the riding hats, which were small and elegant and possessed the right degree of deportment and yet the implication of adventure. Did it matter that Pearl had no experience of riding? Perhaps it would be an opportunity for some blade to teach her, at which her imagination galloped off upon various escapades featuring some young gallant and Pearl cantering together through the forest, racing along the beach and across grasslands before slowing to a stately walk up a cobbled lane to take tea in the sunroom of a manor house. She chose a tan hat with a black brim that came to a V-shape down the middle of her forehead and had a small plume at the back.

“Are you sure?” asked her mother.

“It is admirably clean of line,” said Pearl.

Florence expected that Pearl had read this clean of line business in some novel.

“Sleek,” explained Pearl, seeing her mother’s frown.

Florence suppressed her indignation that Pearl rated her too old and provincial to know when something was clean of line. The false sophistication of youth, she thought wearily. “Very well.” What Pearl did not know was that her mother had pawned a set of ruby earrings to pay for it all.

Pearl spent the evening before the party in her room deciding what to do about her hair. It wasn’t her best feature, sometimes she couldn’t even tell what colour it was, a sort of brown, not tan, not auburn, not chestnut, neither lustrous nor rich; rather it was a greyish shade of brown. Dust brown? Ash brown? Mouse brown? Miranda’s hair was golden. Her mother’s was auburn. Even Carpy had better hair. Pearl piled hers up in order to expose her neck, which though admirably long lacked anything approaching a curve that could be even remotely described as elegant. Miranda, of course, was a veritable swan. Going for the least bad option, she decided she would pile her hair up—then chastised herself for of course that would make her too tall. What if the young officer whom she captivated with her charm and conversation was himself not overly endowed with height? She decided to leave the issue of her hair for later and devoted herself to the question of deportment, which involved posture and how best to hold her head, pitch her voice, occupy her hands. Finally, there was conversation, or conversazione, as Miranda put it, for it was essential that she both intrigue and delight if the evening was to be rated a success. She began compiling a list of suitable topics. World events? Theatre? Novels? Fashion? She decided that she would attach herself to Miranda and take her cues appropriately.

Photo of Grant Buday by Eden Buday.

Excerpted from In the Belly of the Sphinx, copyright © 2023 Grant Buday. Reprinted with permission of TouchWood Editions. Read more book excerpts.



Post Date:

November 8, 2023