Category Archives: Essie Fox

My Top Five Victorian Reads by Essie Fox; Part Two

After a wonderful guide to some of the literature of the times yesterday, today Essie Fox gives us her guide to her top five Victorian Pastiche novels. I have to say I have never been sure if I like the term Victorian Pastiche, it almost sounds like its work that is mocking or merely copying the original works when these modern novels can be a real treat. I suppose that ‘contemporary novels set in the Victorian era’ is rather a mouthful, though someone mentioned neo-Victorian yesterday in the comments which I quite liked. Anyway enough from me, over to Essie…

The Quincunx: The Inheritance of John Huffam – by Charles Pallisser

Oh, but this is brilliant. I really can’t begin to recommend this book highly enough. It is a very big novel in every sense of the word and one in which the story’s hero, John Huffam, bears the middle names of Charles Dickens, of whose inheritance this book is a worthy champion. Huffam’s story artfully reflects that of Dickens’ own creations, filled as it is with stolen documents, deceitful women, laudanum addicts, sewer scavengers, asylums and dens of thieves – but this pastiche also has modern sensibilities so that our narrator is not always the most reliable, and there are many ambiguities.

Affinity by Sarah Waters

This spell-binding story draws the reader into a brooding, slowly swirling vortex in which an unmarried well-to-do woman has suffered a nervous breakdown and is far too reliant on laudanum. Now seeking to become ‘useful’ in the world she is visiting those less fortunates in the gothic maze of Millbank prison. But there she is mentally imprisoned herself when drawn into the seemingly magical world of Selina Dawes, a young, disgraced spiritualist medium. Incredibly sensual, eerie and dark, this is a very clever book.

Note from Simon – I too loved this book, in fact out of all her works this remains my favourite though I haven’t read ‘Fingersmith’ yet.

Nights at the Circus by Angela Carter

The sheer magic and dizzying prose of this post-modern feminist plot will enthral you. It is the story of Fevvers, a circus trapeze artiste who was raised in a brothel and who may or may not have a pair of wings sprouting out from her back.

Note from Simon – I had no idea that Angela Carter had written a novel set in the Victorian period, let alone that it was one of her most well known. I shall have to read this pronto, I always seem to pick up her dystopian works.

Angels and Insects by A S Byatt

This is actually made up of two novellas, both written in Byatt’s gloriously sensual style, weaving fact with fiction, and reality with magical romance. Morpho Eugenia is the story of a young naturalist, William, who finds himself immersed in the lives of the Alabaster family, gradually and naively drawn into their dark world of depravity. The Conjugal Angel is the tale of a group of spiritualists, one of whom is mourning her dead lover, the young man immortalised in Tennyson’s ‘In Memoriam’ – and Byatt’s own poetry is also woven into the plot.

The Meaning of Night by Michael Cox

An exceptional Victorian crime thriller which tells the story of Edward Glyver and his obsession with Phoebus Rainsford Daunt, a man who has stolen all that is rightfully his. The story continues in a sequel, entitled The Glass of Time.

Note from Simon – Sorry I keep bustling in on your recommendations Essie, I had this to read and it sounded so up my street, one of my old flats got flooded and which book took the brunt. Yes this one. Its 600+ pages soaked up most of the damage and saved a few others. Just a little bookish aside.

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A huge thank you to Essie for doing this, especially at short notice as I had been a bit lax, and sharing a wonderful list of ten books to get stuck into, especially as she is currently rather manic with The Somnambulist’ being on The TV Book Club tonight and all that entails. If you want to see the first part of the Victorian reads bonanza pop here, and for Essie’s wonderful Victorian-fest of a blog head to Virtual Victorian. Which of her recommendations have you tried and what did you think? Which Victorian Pastiche or neo-Victorian books have you read and loved? I must give yet another heard up for ‘Gillespie and I’ by Jane Harris, one of my personal favourites. Do share the ones you have enjoyed too. Who knows Essie might come and chat with you about them!

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My Top Victorian Reads by Essie Fox; Part One

Yesterday on the blog I was discussing my latest desire/reading whim seems to be for Victorian books be they written at the time or contemporary novels set in the period. (I also said that I would have another review of a book set in the era, thing is they are so full of twists and turns its hard to do anything without spoilers, it will appear honest.) This was in part, as I mentioned yesterday, thanks to reading Essie Fox’s debut novel The Somnambulist’ and I had an idea. With her blog Virtual Victorian who would be better than to give her suggestions for just these types of books? Essie of course, and so here is the first of her selection of novels from the time, tomorrow she will be giving us her recommendations of modern novels set in the period…

The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins

Said to be one of the earliest examples of English detective crime fiction, Wilkie Collins’ thrilling sensation novel is full of unnerving gothic twists – not to mention one of the most hideous anti-heroes that you will ever chance to ‘meet’ in the obese personage of Count Fosco. Once you start reading, you will be gripped.

Note from Simon – “this is one of the best books ever written and if you haven’t read it then you must, or else.”

Great Expectations by Charles Dickens

From Wilkie’s good friend Mr Dickens. Such a wonderfuly ‘human’ psychological drama which really has it all – love, lust and deception, class and wealth, not to mention one of the finest gothic heroines in the tragic yet dangerous form of Miss Havisham. And then, there is the house in which Miss Havisham lives, a brilliant realisation of materialised decay and corruption: Satis House, where every clock has been stopped, Satis House, where Satis means ‘Enough’. And it is, in every sense of the word.

Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte

I had to think very hard about my favourite Bronte novel, and although I might prefer to read Charlotte’s ‘Jane Eyre’ these days, if only for the beauty of the novel’s style and construction, in my heart Emily still has me enslaved, just as she did when I was seventeen, when I first read the story and wept for days at the doomed love of Healthcliff and Catherine. But, for those who may not have read Wuthering Heights, it is so much more than a simmering tale of thwarted love…think more warped passions and violent revenge, the twisted ambitions that result from desire for inheritance and wealth that seed like a canker in the flesh of those who live on after Catherine’s death.  It also has a very interesting structure – with varying levels of narration opening up like magic boxes to reveal the truth at the novel’s heart.

Dracula by Bram Stoker

Oh, this was so hard – and again I had to really think to choose between Bram Stoker’s work and other supernatural tales such as Stevenson’s Doctor Jeckyll and Mr Hyde, or Wilde’s The Portrait of Dorian Gray. But ultimately Dracula wins out for sheer gut wrenching terror imbued with a dark sensuality that still has the power to draw one in to such a compellingly dangerous world. And my, what fan fiction it has produced!

Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert

Flaubert’s debut, and his masterpiece. How a male writer so convincingly enters the mind of his passionate ‘heroine’ Emma Bovary is in itself a wonder. This is a far more ‘realistic’ novel than any of my other choices. It shows, with enormous psychological awareness, the unravelling of a woman’s mind – a woman who sees her life as if a romantic novel. But dreams and ideals are soon to be dashed in the mire of adultery and social ambition. A devastating cautionary tale. A woman born before her time.

NB: I realised too late that I’ve not included any Thomas Hardy, which is terrible omission. Perhaps ‘The Mayor of Casterbridge’, or ‘Jude the Obscure’, of the tragic ‘Tess of the D’Urbervilles’ should replace my ‘Madame Bovary’ – but why not read and decide for yourself?

What a great selection of books Essie has chosen, and she is another person to recommend ‘Great Expectations’ by Dickens who as you know I have somewhat struggled with in the past. Maybe it’s time to just give him another whirl? Which books have you read from Essie’s list? Which Victorian novels would you add?

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The Somnambulist – Essie Fox

Some books catch your eye with the covers and ‘The Somnambulist’, Essie Fox’s debut novel, certainly did that when it came out in hardback because it was a rather vivid pink. My instant reaction was ‘possibly chick lit’ but I picked it up had a nosey and realised it was a modern take on the sensation novel. I love sensation novels, partly because I adore the Victorian period but also because invariably they are filled with mystery, gothic old mansions, illicit affairs and some melodrama. What a treat to read. The cover though would I read it on the train? What was I going to do about that? Well I left it however it was sent to me a few months ago, by the kind people at Cactus Productions along with all the other TV Book Club choices, with a new redder cover (and one a little less heavy) and so I decided it was time to settle down and get lost in it.

Orion Books, paperback, 2012, fiction, 400 pages, kindly sent by the TV Book Club

‘The Somnambulist’ is one of those really tricky books to review as you fear you will give lots away. Like all good sensational tales there are mysteries to solve and unexpected twists and turns in store and I wouldn’t want to spoil them for anyone else. Interesting then that as I started to read the tale of Phoebe Turner I guessed what was coming about fifty pages in.

At this point I briefly considered stopping, so many books to read and all that, but the writing and characters kept me going and I am so glad they did because the author has many more unexpected twists and turns in the narrative along with murky mysteries and spooky gothic moments to come which wrong foot the reader. Or do they? As with this book you sometimes think (or hope) another twist is coming and occasionally they don’t or sometimes they do and keep on twisting. I am aware I am being rather cloak and dagger but with books like this you have to be.

Phoebe Turner is a young woman growing up in Victorian London’s East End. She is a girl living with two very polar influences over her life in the forms of her mother Maud and her Aunt Cissy. Her mother is god fearing and restrictive, her Aunt is former stage star who makes occasional appearances at Wilton’s Music Hall and Phoebe finds herself being ruled by one and yet tantalised by the other. Things change in Phoebe’s life , though what of course I am not going to say, and she soon finds herself living in the sparse countryside of Hereford at Dinwood Court, where she becomes a companion for Mrs Samuels, a rather mysterious woman who has become somewhat of a recluse. Here in the old country house strange things begin to happen, some very creepy, and there are mysteries lying in wait which might have more to do with Phoebe than she could ever believe.

My initial criticism, and one which I actually thought might mean I left the book unfinished, was as I mentioned the feeling I knew what was coming. Yes there were some twists I didn’t see coming but the main one I predicted from the start. I should mention here that I was in the very lucky position of interviewing Essie Fox on the latest episode of The Readers with Gav and having talked to her I discovered she wanted you to know more while Phoebe didn’t so you had the feeling of watching something awful coming from the sidelines, and then being surprised further. Obviously I read the book before that and so didn’t have that knowledge at the time, so what was it that made me read on?

I hate to use the cliché of ‘page turner’ because some people seem to think this is a dirty word (why I am not sure, the point of a book is surely that you want to turn the pages and read on) but ‘The Somnambulist’ is definitely such a book. I read the first 120 odd pages, which makes up the first of the books three parts, in one evening simply seeing if this might all be leading the way I thought it would. I found myself really enjoying the company of the main characters, though Phoebe does remain somewhat of a mystery throughout, and the supporting cast of characters such as Old Riley who is Cissy’s right hand woman and becomes a marvellous fraudulent spiritualist medium (I find spiritualism, especially in the late 1800’s fascinating) and Mr Peter Faulkner who is wonderfully lecherous and stole any scene on any page he turned up on. Oh, how could I forget Mrs Samuels’ butler, Stephens, who came across most Danver-esque.

‘The Somnambulist’ was simply a pleasure to read all in all. I enjoyed getting drawn into it and the fact that I knew what was coming gave me a rather comfortable feeling weirdly. It was a perfect read for several very cold windy nights; I felt a certain safety with it despite the books overall darkness. Yes things surprised me too, which was an added bonus, but there was a familiar side to the book which I found immensely readable along with a bunch of characters I wanted to spend my evenings with. It’s a rather promising start to Essie Fox’s writing career and from what I have heard I will be enjoying her darker more twisted second novel when it comes out in the autumn. Mermaid’s, madness and brothels in the Victorian era, oh yes please.

Has anyone else read this book and if so what did you think? I will be watching the TV Book Club with interest this Sunday when they discuss it. I wonder what they will make of it. Oh and I should say that if, like me, you love all things Victorian do pop and read Essie’s blog on the era, it’s great. I have a feeling that you will be seeing a lot more Victorian based reads over the next few weeks and months on Savidge Reads as it’s given me the appetite for them again.

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