1860. A year after Charles Darwin published his groundbreaking Origin of Species, the evangelical community of Wiltshire has far more important matters on their minds. As they await the imminent reawakening of Christian fervour, from America via Wales, Beatrice Pentecost struggles to keep Sarum House running smoothly as well as caring for her sister Anna, a delicate invalid with worrying signs of insanity. After all, she did cut her arm open following the death of their stepmother, Lora Ritter. Not only does she harbour strange ideas, she is also far too friendly with the unconventional novelist, Miriam Salas (loosely based on George Eliot). But Beatrice is also tormented by her own physical self. She has been engaged to the charismatic evangelist, Christian Ritter, since she was nine, but is besotted with Welsh preacher, Will Anwyl. When she finally agrees to marry Christian, and Anna marries Will, the scene is set for emotional conflict and heartbreak.
Peopled by a rich and colourful variety of characters, including adherents of spiritualism and the more bizarre examples of Christian belief, Awakenings follows the ever-changing relationship between the two sisters. It is a continuous shifting balance of power.
Stevie Davies has, in my opinion, is underrated as a novelist. I can only guess it is because of her strong feminism or maybe because she takes the intelligence and the social and historical knowledge of her readers for granted. If you are as interested, as I am, in the position of women in the mid-19th century, then Awakenings is a must-read. It is full of human insight into the nature of insanity, motherhood and bereavement but is also funny. It’s one of those rare novels that the more you read, the more you discover. George Eliot would be impressed.