Essie Fox has written a powerful Victorian novel, set in Hertfordshire in London’s East End; the writing so vivid that the reader can almost hear carriage wheels riding over ancient cobblestones, and easily imagine the incessant fog conjuring up ghostly figures and eerie lighting. The Somnambulist is a moody and nostalgic tale of obsessive love and betrayal, full of unexpected twists and turns, eventually revealing the truth behind family mysteries and dark intrigue.
The young and naïve protagonist Phoebe Turner captivates the reader as soon as she arrives on the scene. And then there is her beautiful, sensuous aunt Cissy who rescues Phoebe from a suffocating life of religious fervour and introduces her to the wonderful world of the music hall stage, passionate men and the intense spiritualism that pervaded the Victorian era. Docks, music halls, and graveyards add to the Gothic atmosphere of the tale. Mysterious men with past connections to Cissy and the Turner family seem to pop up everywhere only to confuse Phoebe even more. And why do the dead exert such influence over the living? As Phoebe grows into womanhood, she begins to learn more about the secrets of the past, only for tragedy to strike again.
I love the way Essie Fox weaves her Gothic tale around the haunting painting of the same name: ‘The Somnambulist’ by Pre-Raphaelite artist John Everett Millais.
The painting overshadows the goings-on in the Turner household and Phoebe is haunted by it, often dreaming about the sad woman wandering the dark cliffs, seemingly alone. But is she alone? Phoebe suspects that it is a painting depicting her adored aunt Cissy in the role. She often wishes Cissy was her mother instead of Cissy’s much older sister the religious zealot, Maud, whose life is devoted to converting heathen men and women, including whores, to a life with Jesus, and to preventing Phoebe from falling into the evil abyss like Cissy has done, due to her life on the stage in music halls surrounded by loose women and ‘dangerous’ men.
When seventeen-year-old Phoebe visits Wilton’s Music Hall with her Aunt Cissy, her life changes forever, and she risks the angry preaching of Maud who marches with the Hallelujah Army, and who besiege the streets calling for all London theatres and music halls to close.
Actually, the plot may be set in the Victorian era, but I can relate to Phoebe as a 17 year old, lied to, had her parents stolen from her because of some Christian hypocrites who long ago made the decision to keep Phoebe in the ‘dark’ about her true parentage. The plot is not that far-fetched as far as family intrigue goes, in my view, but what Fox has achieved in ‘The Somnambulist’ is the clever weaving of many layers intertwined with mystery and subterfuge all the while evoking emotion and sympathy from the reader toward Phoebe, and also toward her aunt Cissy, both of whom seem to be doomed to a life filled with deception, regret, betrayal, and loss.
Since reading ‘The Somnambulist’ and ‘The Goddess and the Thief’ by Essie Fox, I have now catapulted her into ‘My Favourite Authors’ category which is unusual as my most read genre is non-fiction and some historical fiction. Although, I would classify this wonderful book as Victorian historical fiction, interlaced with thespian dramatics and spiritual effect.
-Anne Frandi-Coory 19 December 2018