Named after the Millais painting, but also featuring a sleepwalking character, Essie Fox’s novel takes us back to later Victorian London (1880s) and is rooted in the gothic, reminding me greatly of Wilkie Collins who has inspired my own writing as well as Fox’s. Published in 2011, for any readers familiar with the genre there is a lot within this book which is familiar. Fox is the author of The Virtual Victorian, a blog dedicated to the era, and her love of the time period comes through in her writing.
When she spots an enigmatic stranger in the audience one night at Wilton’s Music Hall, seventeen-year-old Phoebe Turner doesn’t realise her life is about to change. Mr Samuels offers her the job of companion to his reclusive wife at Dinwood Court – a grand country house that may well be haunted and which holds the darkest of secrets.
Leaving the hustle of London’s East End, Phoebe finds herself disturbed by her new surroundings. She awakes to hear sobbing in the night and it soon becomes clear that she has not been chosen to work there by chance…
As far as the main plot of the book is concerned, this should have ticked every box for me. A young girl being taken away from everything and everyone she knows by a dark mysterious stranger. A country house where some of the staff do not behave as they should. There were so many questions that I had after the opening few chapters but they were annoyingly answered almost immediately! Although the novel is mainly written in first person from Phoebe’s perspective, Fox made the odd choice to include the odd chapter written in third person from Mr Samuels’ in which, since he knows all the answers to Phoebe’s questions, the reader is let into most of the secrets before Phoebe knows what’s going on. For me, the tension was lost. I spent the rest of the book waiting for Phoebe to work things out incredibly slowly.
My other issue was around the romantic elements of this novel. Phoebe falls for two men during the course of the book, purely from sight it seems. There was no introduction to her emotional state and therefore the romantic aspect never felt true to me. Also, there is a dodgy Tess/Alec d’Urberville style sex scene in the woods which I do think modern authors need to be wary of. If you’re going to include something that reads like a rape scene then it needs to be addressed further than the character feeling guilty the day afterwards, otherwise make it clearly consensual.
What I loved about this book was the attention to detail. At the beginning and end of the book there are several scenes at Wilton’s Music Hall which I enjoyed. The character of Old Riley, former dresser to Phoebe’s aunt, was brilliantly drawn, and I felt that Phoebe was a fuller character when around these familiar friends. I also thought that Mrs Samuels, the tragic reclusive wife, rang true and was pitched just right. Mr Samuels also, though I would have liked his chapters removed to keep his mysteries a little longer, then perhaps a few more scenes between he and Phoebe in London before she goes to the country.
Overall verdict: for a great Victorian mystery look elsewhere as this is no The Woman in White or Fingersmith, but for a light read that evokes the feeling of 19th century London, music hall and an air of the gothic this definitely fits the bill.