The title of this British historical novel is derived from an epigraph written by Ralph Waldo Emerson: “Truth is beautiful, no doubt, but so are lies.” And lies of all kinds are at the heart of this tale, set in 1880’s London. The central character is introduced as an exotic, expatriate Chilean heiress, Maria Isabel Constanza de la Flamandiere, known as “Maribel.” At least, that’s the story that Maribel and her husband Edward Campbell Lowe, a staunchly Socialist Scottish peer and member of Parliament, would have everyone believe. But Maribel’s true name and origin are only the first of many deceptions the reader will encounter in this atmospheric novel.
Much of the book concerns Maribel’s practice of the art and science of photography, which is still in its infancy. But even in these early stages, Maribel discovers just how easy it is to manipulate images so that the statement “a picture never lies,” becomes merely an absurd joke. Among her favorite photographic subjects are the denizens of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, which spent June through October of 1887 performing in London. These performances created a completely false “history” of the American West, and made a travesty of the defeat and destruction of the Native American culture in particular. Maribel also photographs another manufactured historical event: the 1887 celebrations of Queen Victoria’s Jubilee year, during which lavish parades, banquets, carnivals, and fairs, exalting the bounty of the British Empire, were staged within a stone’s throw of some of the world’s most wretched and impoverished slums. Beautiful Lies is not a conventional, plot driven novel, but rather an examination of a society so blinded by lovely deceptions that the truth has become impossible to recognize or accept.