June 12th, 2012


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. Collapse )

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.

Collapse )

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.
Dead Dog Cat

(no subject)

Late yesterday, I finished reading Osprey Warrior #138: Roosevelt’s Rough Riders, one of the most famous units in the history of the US military. It was used during the Spanish-American War, in Cuba. Roosevelt recruited a variety of celebrities, as well as cowboys and police. Most casualties, as has been true through most of history, were due to disease, but the unit was famous for the attack on San Juan Hill. Interesting read.
book and cup

#61 The New Moon with the Old - Dodie Smith (1963)

This novel from the author of I Capture the Castle is an absolute joy. There is something of the fairy-tale about it – although it is more heart-warming than frothy.

It is the early 1960’s and Jane Minton a thirty something single woman arrives at Dome house to begin a new job. The job is that of secretary/housekeeper to Rupert Carrington. On arrival Jane finds that Mr Carrington is absent – but she is welcomed heartily by his four children all in their early twenties or teens – and the two elderly sisters who work for the family. That first evening is a wonderful start for Jane, warm, well fed, settled as one of the family in front of the television – she is certain that Dome house is a place she’ll never want to leave. The following day however everything is thrown in to disarray – when Rupert Carrington suspected of fraud flees the country. Jane has to find a way to help the Carrington family live – immediately there are strict economies that have to be made and the elder Carrington children need to start to think about employment.
The narrative switches from character to character as we follow the eccentric ways they find to fly the nest and start to make their ways in the world. There is Merry- 14 and a half – who wants to be an actress, Drew who has aspirations to be a writer, Richard the musician and Clare a painter with little talent, whose only ambition is to be the mistress of a king.

Merry runs away to London disguised as someone much older – she doesn’t quite make it to London – but ends up in another equally eccentric household. Drew applies to become an elderly woman’s companion, and ends up totally reorganising her life. Clare finds her job as a reader to an elderly man in London has an unexpectedly romantic twist. Richard meanwhile tries to keep Dome house going, while coping with the arrival of the dreaded Aunt Winifred and his father’s ex-girlfriend who has also landed on him unexpectedly. Jane holds them all together admirably while working as secretary to the headmistress of Merry’s old school.

I was reminded strongly of I capture the castle while reading this – in the voices of the characters particularly. It is an enormously charming novel, humorous and engaging it’s fabulous for curling up with for long periods. I enjoyed it immensely.