Never mind the sheen just feel the weight: those five dresses in The Luminaries

The Customs House, Hokitika
The Customs House, Hokitika

I was reading Eleanor Catton's (2013) Mann Booker winning novel, The Luminaries, late into the night and then into the early morning. The summary penultimate chapter in Part I recounts the twists and turns of the complex plot and its protagonists.


I had begun to have doubts about the dresses Anna Wetherell appears to have acquired as salvage from ships wrecked on the treacherous bar to Hokitika harbour, the 1865 gold rush town on New Zealand's South Island west coast in which the novel is set.


These five dresses contain a fortune (£4,000) of gold sown into the seams. It already seemed unlikely that a man or woman could carry around a load of gold in their clothes without knowing it. It is heavy and dense stuff after all. Then I got to wondering how much gold £4,000 would have bought in 1865.


I got out of bed and turned on the computer. It was 5 am.

'Old George'  Wiltshire - a hatter -lving on Lake Kaniere Road (Hokitia Museum no date)
'Old George' Wiltshire - a hatter -lving on Lake Kaniere Road (Hokitia Museum no date)d

I first found a list of historical gold prices at US$ prices per Troy ounce. I then looked for historical £/$ exchange rates but could not find them. But I came across a National Archives spending power converter. £4,000 in 1870 comes out at a value of £182,000 in 2005 (the setting on the NA converter). Using a 2005 gold price and a current £ to $ exchange rate that original £4,000 might have purchased (give or take) 689 Troy ounces or 47lbs 4oz of gold in 1865.


That is an awful lot of gold.


Dividing that by the five dresses gives a weight of gold per dress of over 9lbs (4kg).


Walter Moody, the character doing the summarising in the novel in his head, asks about Wetherell,


'Was total ignorance really possible? As an opium eater, perhaps she had not noticed the added weight as a sober woman might.' (p.344-5)


Revell Street, Hokitika, c1913 (Hokitika Museum)
Revell Street, Hokitika, c1913 (Hokitika Museum)

If my calculations are correct (and the plot doesn't revise the figures for the value of the gold stitched into the dresses in the second half of the book) I would say it is impossible that Anna Wetherell would not have realised that her dresses, and her 'orange whoring dress' (p.345) in particular, were a little on the heavy side.


And indeed her unusually observant clients might have noticed something as in,


'Is that 9lbs of gold dust and nuggets stitched into your dress or are you just pleased to see me?'


So to speak.

The Arahura River valley, location of Crosbie Wells's 'cottage' in Eleanor Catton's 2013 prize-winning novel, The Luminaries
The Arahura River valley, location of Crosbie Wells's 'cottage' in Eleanor Catton's 2013 prize-winning novel, The Luminaries


Just as a check I did the following.


Even simply dividing the £4,000 by the 1865 price of gold at $18.94 a Troy ounce (without bothering about the conversion into US$ or historical purchasing power converters) this gives 211 Troy ounces which roughly equates to 12lbs of gold or 2.4lb (about a bag of sugar) per dress.


Maybe dresses with all those stays and whale bone were really that much heavier. But I don't think so.


Although on this page on Early Victorian Fashion (up until 1906 for below) we find this,


Six petticoats at least were needed to hold the wide skirts out. The cotton, flannel or wool petticoats used under one skirt could weigh as much as 14 pounds, so clothes were uncomfortably hot and heavy in summer.


So far as I recall we do not know how many petticoats Anne Wetherell was wearing in The Luminaries.


For interest here is a blog entry on Eleanor Catton's March 2014 visit to the Arahura Marae outside Hokitika. She is @EleanorCatton on Twitter.

Write a comment

Comments: 1
  • #1

    Heather Newby (Saturday, 26 December 2020 07:31)

    This is a comment I got when I put your article on my West Coast History Page on Facebook.
    Cynthia McCaughan
    This was one if the biggest errors in the book. Why the author or editors couldn't do even a basic bit of costume research is beyond me - crinoline and bustle were never worn together and don't get me started on what they wore in the series. So wrong! Mind you that artistic licence has been taken all through the years of tv and films dressing women as floosies in fabrics and styles (anything off the shoulder, and definitely NEVER cleavage) that would be only ever seen as evening wear by the very wealthy and not everyday common folk.
    As for the amount of gold she "didn't notice" in her clothing that was just plain stupid. Way too much to be concealed. "Whalebone" is not heavy is actually thin and very flexible and weighs very little; far thinner and lighter than modern plastic boning and metal busks (where a corset closed at the front) were very thin. Anything in seams around the bodices which were very form fitted would be very noticeable. Stitched into the hems would also be noticed.