With my love of all things Victorian I had high hopes for this book, the debut novel by Essie Fox, and I wasn’t disappointed. The Somnambulist is a beautifully written story with memorable characters, an intricate plot and a distinctly gothic feel.
Phoebe Turner is a seventeen-year-old girl who lives in the East End of London. Her mother, Maud, a member of the Hallelujah Army, has done her best to keep Phoebe from sin and to protect her from what she considers to be the bad influence of her sister, Cissy. Phoebe, though, adores her glamorous Aunt Cissy and she is left devastated by her sudden death early in the novel.
Maud is struggling with the loss of Cissy’s income and when the wealthy Nathaniel Samuels offers Phoebe a position as companion to his wife, it seems this could be the solution to their financial problems. And so Phoebe leaves London behind and travels to Dinwood Court, the Samuels’ mansion in Herefordshire, where she begins to uncover some dark family secrets…
Essie Fox is the author of the Virtual Victorian blog and one thing that is very apparent in The Somnambulist is her knowledge and love of the Victorian period. It was interesting to read the author’s note at the back of the book in which she gives us some of the historical fact behind the fiction and lets us know which of the people and places mentioned in the novel are ones that really existed. I was impressed by the amount of period detail and the vivid descriptions which really brought the settings to life, particularly Wilton’s Music Hall and the magnificent Dinwood Court, two contrasting but equally well-drawn locations. The characters, too, are colourful and vibrant and Phoebe herself is a complex character who grows and develops as a person over the course of the novel.
I guessed one of the book’s big secrets almost from the beginning (a sign that I’ve read too many books of this type, maybe!) but that didn’t matter at all because I enjoyed watching Phoebe as she slowly pieced the parts of her history together. There were other surprises and twists that I didn’t see coming and overall I thought the story was very cleverly plotted. I also loved the sleepwalking theme which is indicated in the title and gently woven throughout the book with references to the Millais painting, The Somnambulist, which is widely believed to have been inspired by either the Wilkie Collins novel The Woman in White or the Bellini opera La Sonnambula. The story itself is often ghostly and dream-like and Phoebe’s world is a place where nothing is exactly as it seems.
The Somnambulist is an impressive debut novel and I’ll certainly look out for any future books from Essie Fox.