This assured debut novel tells the story of Phoebe Turner, a young girl who lives in the East End of London with Maud, her widowed mother and Maud’s younger sister, Cissy. Maud is a member of a group of religious activists similar to the Salvation Army. Cissy has given up on the stage, much to Maud’s relief, but leaves retirement briefly to perform the lead role in a production of Handel’s Acis & Galatea at Wilton’s Music Hall. It is there that Phoebe’s life begins to change.
After Cissy’s sudden death, a grief-stricken Phoebe is employed by the mysterious entrepreneur Nathaniel Samuels as a companion for his reclusive and invalid wife at his country home, Dinwood Court. Slowly and inexorably, Phoebe learns the dark secrets of the household, of the Samuels family and its chilling connection with her own. And what has any of it to do with Millais’ famous painting The Somnambulist?
Essie Fox is an expert on all things Victorian. Her blog, www.virtualvictorian.blogspot.com, is a must for any one who shares her passion. The Somnambulist is a classic Gothic novel. Although more sexually explicit than it would be had it been written at the time in which it is set, everything else is a perfect fit: A mysterious house, a child’s grave, dark woods, sleepwalking, madness, hypocrisy and religion. There is also huge wealth and East End poverty, the raucous Music Hall and an innocent young woman in peril. And like many a Victorian novel, melodrama is never too far away.
But it matters not. This is a gutsy, page-turning novel with a delightful heroine. Although not as chilling or dark as Fingersmith it shares its larger-than-life Dickensian characters and generous supply of plot twists and turns. But it is no pastiche. It is an affectionate and knowledgeable homage to the genre and a thumping good read.