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Book 75: The Somnambulist by Essie Fox

Book 75: The Somnambulist.
Author: Essie Fox, 2011.
Genre: Historical Fiction. England 1880s.Romance. Coming of Age.
Other Details: Hardback. 384 pages.

'Every heart holds a secret'
'Some secrets are better left buried...'
- front & back cover tag lines.

London's East End, 1881 and 17-year-old Phoebe Turner is thrilled to visit Wilton's Music Hall where her beloved Aunt Cissy is singing the part of Galatea in Handel's operetta after a considerable absence from the stage. In doing so Phoebe risks angering her mother, Maud, who is a dedicated member of the Hallelujah Army, an evangelical group campaigning for temperance and the closure of all London theatres. Phoebe's attention is drawn to a man in the audience who later appears to have some connection with her Aunt. He is Nathaniel Samuels, a rich Jewish department store owner. When there is a change in the Turner family's circumstances, Phoebe is offered the position of companion to Nathaniel's reclusive wife, Lydia. She leaves behind the East End for Dinwood Court in Herefordshire. There she discovers an inhospitable environment and that the house may be haunted.

In principle it all does sound very much the epitome of Victorian Gothic: an innocent girl arrives at a secluded stately home staffed with unwelcoming servants, there is a neurotic mistress of the house still mourning an untimely death, a dash of spiritualism, a ghostly presence, dark and menacing woods and lots of secrets. Yet somehow these ingredients just didn't add up for me in terms of atmosphere. When it was featured on C4's TV Book Club the presenters had said that while strongly marketed as a Gothic mystery, that it read more as a straight-forward historical romantic mystery. I was glad to be pre-warned of this, else I might have been disappointed when it turned out to be closer in tone to a Victorian 'sensation' novel. Not that there is anything wrong with this. I feel that Fox may have been trying a little too hard for the novel to be categorized as Gothic or her publishers were pushing this label. I don't believe you can write a Gothic novel from a formula; rather it is quality that stems from the psyche of the writer.

Still I did enjoy the novel in its own terms and it proved a quick and engaging read. Even though full of sensational elements, the novel also addresses social issues such as the underlying anti-Semitism, which led to attacks against people and property during the period, the huge gap between the classes and the status of women. I admired the depth of Essie Fox's research and felt she skillfully captured the period. I especially enjoyed the foray back to the East End of the early 1880s and to vicariously experience the glamour and energy of the Victorian music hall. I was pleased that she included an Author's Note with details of the historical background and locations.

The title of the novel is taken from a painting by Sir John Everett Millais depicting a young woman sleepwalking close to the edge of a cliff. It is a painting that embodies Victorian Gothic. The painting also does feature in the novel.

The Somnambulist, 1871 by Sir John Everett Millais

The cover art for the hardback was beautifully detailed and as noted above very pink. This was Essie Fox's début novel and I plan to look out for her future titles. Her next project, Elijah's Mermaid, about a Victorian artist and his muse sounds intriguing. Currently The Somnambulist has only published in the UK, though can be purchased as an import.

Website for 'The Somnambulist' - includes link to excerpt, A-Z notes.

The Virtual Victorian - Essie Fox's blog, dedicated to Victoriana.
Tags: bildungsroman/coming of age, british, historical mysteries, historical romance

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