Essie Fox’s The Somnambulist is an atmospheric and richly-imagined Gothic novel set in London in the late 1800s. The story revolves around the lives of three women – 17-year-old Phoebe Turner, her salvationist mother Maud Turner and her adored Aunt Cissy, a singer. When, following a visit to Wilton’s Music Hall, Phoebe begins to explore the lives of her aunt and mother, she stumbles into a world of guilt, regret and lost love. To break free of it, Phoebe must rewrite the story of her own life.
Essie is also the creator and author of The Virtual Victorian, a gorgeous treasure trove of a blog.
The Somnambulist is a fabulously-created world. How long is it, and how long did it take you to write?
The novel took me 12 months to write and it’s approximately 112,000 words… although it was much longer when I first wrote it – probably more like 150,000.
I tend to over-write, to work myself into a world as I try to ‘enter’ the minds of the characters. Then, when I’m going over the first draft, I tend to cut back an awful lot. That’s the point when, as a reader, rather than a writer, you can suddenly see the wood for the trees.
The pages teem with detail. How much did research for the book overlap with research for the blog?
The book came first. I’d actually written the first draft and was at an Arsenal match one day when the friend who sits next to me asked – ‘so what’s your online presence?’ As I didn’t have one, I went home that evening and thought about starting a blog. I came up with the name The Virtual Victorian and used Blogger, creating the layout from the customised tool settings. It really was very easy. I chose a Millais painting as a banner picture, mainly because I love his work, and also because his ‘A Somnambulist’ is featured in my novel and, indeed, inspired its title.
A lot of the research material contained in the book has also now appeared on the blog – more so around the time of publication. But, actually, I blog on any Victorian ‘Facts, Fancies or Fabrications’ that happen to stir my interest and the contents are quite eclectic – from science, to art, to literature – including reviews on novels which are based in the Victorian era. The blog has become an integral part of my writing life, but something quite separate from the story-telling aspect. I love it!
You evoke both beauty and its opposite – ugliness and squalor, very powerfully. Do you feel equally at home with both? Are they two sides of the same coin?
I’ve come to writing rather late. For over twenty years I worked as an illustrator. But, because of that, I tend to be very ‘visual’ and when I write I usually see a scene as an image before I place the characters in it – such as the London docks , or the cemetery in Bow, or the woods in Herefordshire. It’s almost as if I’m watching a film, and as I love gothic literature, I do like to evoke that sense of menace. But, I’m also aware that sometimes a writer has to pull themself back from being overly prurient. There is a certain relish in being melodramatic.
I’m also very interested in architecture and interior design – and beautiful houses do feature in the novel – especially the sprawling Dinwood Court in Herefordshire (which is really called Hampton Court) almost becoming like another character. And, I must say that the crumbling decay of Wilton’s music hall was an absolute delight to write about. When you go there you can almost taste the past.
Where did the voice of Phoebe Turner come from?
I visited Wilton’s music hall for a performance one night, and as the stage lights were glinting on the lovely brass barley twists pillars that hold up the theatre’s balcony, I started to wonder what those metal posts might once have reflected in the past. I went home thinking that I’d love to write something set in the music hall’s heyday, and when I woke the next morning, I had three distinct characters in my head – Maud, Phoebe, and Cissy – a widow, her daughter, and the widow’s sister who shared the family home.
But Phoebe – a young girl on the cusp of womanhood – was always going to be the narrator. Her ‘voice’ was so clear in my mind from the start – and as soon as I wrote her opening lines ‘I’d been to Wilton’s hall before, I would have been seven or eight at the time…’ Phoebe was up and running – with all her verve and naivety. I honestly don’t know where she came from, but I very much enjoyed being part of her world. And, however odd it may sound, I do feel that I entered her world, rather than Phoebe entering mine.
Maud and Cissy – Phoebe’s mother and aunt – seem like archetypes, of the good and bad mother figures. Do you think every woman has both a good and a bad mother?
Yes, I think all of our mothers – all of us – can be like that, and I wanted Phoebe to feel a terrible pull – a conflict in her loyalties between the two of them. I suppose Cissy is the Madonna, and Maud is the more tyrannical domineering mother, but the motives of both are complex, and although the characters may seem ‘black and white’ at first, it soon becomes clear that there are many issues muddying the past that affect their behaviour. Maud truly does believe she is doing her best – marching around and waving her banners against alcohol, and the music halls. But even when her actions are more personally selfish, leading to tragic consequences, she justifies everything through her religious faith.
Anti-semitism is horrifyingly explored. What was it like to go into that?
It was difficult as I was wary of causing offence in some of the more dramatic scenes. But I also wanted to express the tensions that were very much in evidence at the time – most of them explored through Maud’s bigotry. Being a Jew added great complexity to the character of Nathaniel Samuels, a man whose fortune has been built from nothing, and who has a sense of profound isolation – having no faith of his own and never feeling accepted within the British ‘establishment’ – or able to escape from his poverty-stricken past.
This was an area where I needed to do a great deal of research – discovering that many prestigious London shops were owned by men who had started out by setting up market stalls in London’s East End and around the docks. The owner of Harrods (the shop upon which Samuels Store is loosely based) ‘moved up’ to Knightsbridge and made a fortune selling refreshments to the millions of tourists who visited the Great Exhibition of 1851. The trade was so successful that Mr Harrod was able to buy his shop outright – and the rest, as we know, is history!
Did you have a hand in the beautiful cover? As a former illustrator, you must have had ideas about it?
The cover is in two halves, divided by the title scroll in the centre. When I had lunch with my editor one day, I had actually sketched out a similar ‘frame-work’ on a serviette – imagining the trees and moon at the top, and the proscenium arch of Wilton’s below. However, I was surprised to see the final design as I’d been expecting something more ‘realistic’, even photographic, and the cover is actually graphic, with a design of silhouettes, quite reminiscent of a Victorian fairy tale book. I thought that was absolutely perfect, as all the time I was writing I envisaged The Somnambulist as a sort of fairy tale for grown-ups – with the issues of good and evil – as well as all the gothic events that occur in Victorian ‘sensation’ literature.
You took elements of fact and played with them. What do you feel about the use of fact in fiction?
I like it. A novel is fiction and, as such, a writer has carte blanche to do more or less what they want to. But, I have added a guide at the back of the book to explain what’ real and what’s fantasy in the pages of The Somnambulist. I think that using historical facts and characters can help to loan authenticity, as much as ‘guiding’ the writer by helping to inform a story. For instance, when I first went to Wilton’s I was deeply inspired, but I knew very little about the actual history of the place, and when I did discover the ‘facts’ and key characters from its past, I decided to incorporate some of them into my fictional world. Where I’ve used a ‘real’ character, I have tried to be truthful, such as with the singer, George Leybourne who was famed for the Champagne Charlie song – and John Wilton himself, the owner of the music hall.
The main thing with writing historical fiction is to really know the facts, but then to wear your research lightly because, in the end, the story is all.
The Somnambulist by Essie Fox is published in hardback by Orion ISBN 978-1-4091-2331-6 £12.99
Call on The Virtual Victorian