Confession time – I don’t read a lot of historical fiction (so why did you write a book set in 1811? Because it was there.). A couple of Patrick O’Brians and Neal Stephenson’s Baroque trilogy are the only ones I can most distinctly remember, and more recently The Quickening Maze. But these are all books that are “set in the past” rather than being “historical fiction” per se, and I suppose when I say “historical fiction” I mean a kind of fiction whose historical setting is an element in and of itself – books that luxuriate over long-forgotten details, like tourists walking around Rome.
Anyway, this is all a rambling prologue to some thoughts on The Somnambulist, the debut novel from Essie Fox, who’s a well-established “historical blogger” with her site, The Virtual Victorian. I only know Essie virtually, but she’s always struck me as someone deeply interested in history, yes – but perhaps more deeply interested in people who lived in the past. Which might be a fine distinction, but it’s a distinction nonetheless.
I finished her novel last night, and it was a peach (this morning I described it as a “great Gothic fruit cake” on Twitter, which Essie liked, and I sort of know what I meant). Now, come to think of it, I’m not sure I’ve read many “Gothic” novels other than The Mysteries of Udolpho (and that was over 20 years ago), but you kind of know what the ingredients need to be, just like you can probably knock together a decent apple crumble without knowing precisely what goes into it. You’ll need a strong central narrator, ideally first person. You’ll need extraordinary things happening to them. You’ll need larger-than-life, near-grotesque characters. You’ll need an otherworldly setting. And you’ll need dark secrets in closets which tumble out in a steaming mess.
And The Somnambulist has all these things, to be sure. But the reason I particularly liked it is that it didn’t mock its medium. It took its story – and its central character, Phoebe – seriously, and it took its mode seriously and did it well. It was breathless when it needed to be breathless, weird when it needed to be weird, overwrought when it needed to be overwrought.
More than that, this was the most intensely feminine story I’ve read in a long time. Essie describes the physical sense of being a woman really, really well. She describes clothing, washing, eating, sleeping and other more intimate stuff in ways which I think a man could never manage, and it left me with a real sense that Phoebe was living and breathing.
And to go back to my opening – this history is not overdone. It’s there, it adds detail and a strangeness of context which makes the Gothic narrative possible, but it doesn’t get in the way as it can do with other stories. A good story, well told. Recommended.