With the closure of our theatres, it only seems fair to bring a little old-fashioned footlights-and-greasepaint magic to Historia. So, ladies and gentlemen, I present for your especial enjoyment… the effervescent, the estimable, the essential Essie Fox!
There has been quite an upsurge in Victorian-era novels published over the past few years. As a writer and reader with an interest in this genre I devour most of them, particularly any stories featuring the worlds of theatre and illusion – which is why I was delighted to discover Rose Black’s The Unforgetting (Orion Books) and Kate Griffin’s Kitty Peck and the Parliament of Shadows (Faber and Faber).
The Unforgetting‘s haunting cover bears the words: ‘Her fate was decided. Her death was foretold. Her past is about to be unforgotten’. This fate belongs to Lily Bell, the novel’s young protagonist, who dreams of acting on the stage and is unwittingly deceived into accepting employment with Professor Salt, a complex charlatan whose clever use of mirrors gives his audiences the most compelling vision of dead souls miraculously raised to life. But his ghost is still alive, despite being doomed to lurk forever in the shadows, even forced to hide her face beneath long veils when out in public.
Lily is yet more horrified to find her name and date of death inscribed across a Ramsgate grave. But this ‘end’ is just the start of her nightmare of enslavement, during which the sinister Erasmus Salt is making plans that take an even darker turn.
Dripping with grief and menace, this stunning debut is also an exploration of the struggle for women’s independence, identity, and rights in the nineteenth century.
By contrast, Kitty Peck and The Parliament of Shadows marks Kate Griffin’s sparky heroine’s grand finale on the stage, being the last in a quartet of thrilling Music Hall Mysteries.
Brimming with dark humour, wit, and daring deeds, this rip-roaring new adventure lures the reader from the soap boxes of maniacal preachers to the elusive marble palaces of those eminences placed within the highest levels of society and politics – all leading up to what must be the most satisfying ending any Kitty fan could hope for.
Having read and loved both novels I was intrigued to know much more about the writers’ inspirations, starting with the question:
What led you to write books set in the Victorian era, rather than in the current day?
Rose: I’ve always felt the 19th century to be quite close, historically. This closeness is enhanced after spending some time immersing myself in the art and lives and stories of the Victorians. Their world, like ours, was in a state of rapid and challenging change, with new technologies and trends – the railways, factories, urbanisation, the changing role of women – undoing old ways of life. To me, the Victorians feel very modern in that they had to adapt to live in the new society that was evolving around them.
My female characters reflect what I think about life then and now – that women are strong, that many or most of us meet injustice or cruelty or disappointment at some points in our lives, but that the human spirit is fairly unquenchable and women have the capacity to endure periods of difficulty, emerging stronger and possibly also wiser.
Kate: I also studied English Literature at university, and lost myself for hours on end in fat Victorian novels: all the great romantic gothic classics, such as Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, and the sprawling world of Dickens, where grotesques and comic caricatures play an important supporting role in often deeply disturbing stories.
Please don’t imagine I’m comparing myself with Dickens – such heresy! But when I sat down to write the first Kitty Peck book, I knew I didn’t want to write about ‘polite’ Victorians. I wanted to write about the world described by my East End grandmother Hannah (born in 1898) who grew up in Limehouse when the area was rough, poor, and raucous, and filled with characters who might have stepped straight out of a Dickens novel.
My grandmother actually saw the great music hall star Marie Lloyd on stage several times. The halls of the East End provided entertainment for the poorest, but their vivacity and danger also lured ‘toffs’ who viewed an evening at a music hall as something like a visit to the zoo – with the added pleasure that at closing time they could go home to their comfortable houses and servants! There was something almost democratic about the music hall.
It was, importantly, a world where women could earn their own money and – as long as they remained unmarried – keep it. A poor girl with spirit and talent to match could make a fortune on the halls as long as she survived the hardship and heavy toll of the life.
Alcoholism, venereal disease, rape and consumption were the dark underbelly of life in the limelight as spangle-clad ‘darlin’. So Kitty’s independence and her strength of character are not entirely a contemporary construct. If anyone she owes a debt to a performer called Jenny Hill, known as the ‘Vital Spark’.
The lives led Kitty and her companions are hard. She’s battling a world ordered for and by men and I think a lot of readers find that struggle and her – for want of a better word, ‘attitude’ resonate for them. There’s a hint of #metoo in Kitty’s determination to call out inequality and injustice, even though the movement had yet to find that name when I began the series.
I’m so delighted when readers tell me they’ve given the book to their teenage daughters (and sometimes sons!) because they see Kitty as an admirable character.
The Victorian world is thrillingly familiar to us all. I believe all writers owe a visual debt to TV and film where swirling fogs, rumbling hackney carriages, cane-twirling toffs and raddled street corner harlots are well-worn tropes. For me, the great joy was taking those tropes, running with them and subverting them.
I’m sure that if five authors were asked to describe a Victorian street, they would offer five different scenes. The past imagined by every one of us has been conditioned by the books we’ve read, the films we’ve seen and even the teachers whose obsessions dominated double history on Tuesday afternoons. (Maybe that’s just me?).
Kitty’s sensibilities are modern, I won’t deny that, but she lives on the fringes of Victorian society in a world where in real life ‘the other’ and the ‘transgressive’ found toleration and welcome. Polari – a secret language used by homosexuals – traces its roots partly to theatre and especially to music hall. I used the freedom that Kitty finds in that world to create an imaginative freedom for myself when writing about it. I like to think that her modern spirit is a foreshadowing, not an anachronism.
Importantly for me, Kitty is sometimes an ambivalent character, her motives are not always pure and although she is driven by justice, she is prepared to flout the law. She is bold, funny, mouthy, resilient and deeply pragmatic and her main driver is loyalty to those she cares for: all of that hits a nerve with modern readers.
I think it’s also important to note that poor Victorians didn’t get out of bed every morning thinking “poor me, I’m an urchin, I must go find myself a gutter to suffer in.” No, they thought: “Right! Another day, what am I going to do with it?” That’s Kitty’s overriding, optimistic spirit, whatever life throws at her, she thinks: what am I going to do next?
Rose: I’ve always been interested in the seedy side of life, ever since I was a student, squatting in old Victorian houses in London with peeling plaster and evidence of past lives! In one house I lived in, in Islington, baths were by candlelight and my room had layer upon layer of old wallpaper, faded and peeling. I respond to the patina of age, the layers of history, and I believe the truth lies underneath the appearance of things.
With great zest and imagination, you both invoke an immersive atmosphere of the times – gas-lit streets and theatres, the illusions of glamour compared to the seediness and deceptions going on backstage, as well as those in full view upon it. What draws you both to this superficial gloss and brittle social veneer?
Kate: I love the idea of the tawdry glamour of the music halls – all the glitter and sparkle in the limelight on stage, whereas actually in the cold light of day the sequins are tarnished, the feathers are shedding, the costumes are stinking and moth-eaten and the make-up worn for the lights is a hideous travesty.
It’s hugely visual and exciting to write about that beautiful ugliness. The reality versus the fantasy? The truth compared to lies. In terms of the seedy hypocrisy, I write about this because I don’t think it’s ever gone away. The struggles faced by Kitty and her companions – snobbery, disdain for the popular, and the fact that people are treated as commodities – are still recognisable today.
Your novels both feature mirrors: a two-way mirror in Kitty, a clever spiritual illusion in Lily’s world. How do the mirrors reflect your characters’ own truths, as opposed to those manipulated around them?
Rose: The great mirror that Salt uses to reflect Lily’s image onto the stage is a part of the actual 19th-century technology used to conjure Pepper’s Ghost. It was important to me that, close to the end of the novel, the mirror is shattered and lies on the grass of the fairground – reflecting only the sky. That was symbolic of Lily’s escape from the manipulation of her image, into a felt, lived experience rather than her existence as a projected fantasy.
Kate: There’s an element of bravura performance in Kitty herself. Much of the time in my books she lies or hides from the brutal truth, and that is deliberately mirrored in the artificial world she inhabits. Also, I think when writing Kitty – producing her voice and her opinions on a great many subjects – is an act of ventriloquism on my part. I’m not entirely sure that I’m not the one who is on stage!
Both of your main characters are connected with ghosts – for instance, Kitty is haunted by her past, and also by the spirit of Lady Ginger floating around on its wafts of opium. And then Lily, in her theatrical role, is destined to play an actual ghost for the entertainment of the audience – and for something far more profound going on in the mind of the man who controls her.
How and why did you decide to use supernatural events, or haunted memories – beyond the mystery and the thrill of the narrative?
Rose: As soon as I came across the Pepper’s Ghost technology, I started to think about how a young, naive woman might imagine that this was her route to an exciting, desirable life – but who discovers, to her cost, that it is in fact a negation of herself.
This seems to me to be a theme of women’s lives in many ages – somewhat like the idea in Hans Christian Andersen’s tale of The Red Shoes, that an off-the-shelf version of glamour and excitement is not a substitute for the slow, creative work of fashioning one’s life (as in the ‘real’ red shoes the girl in this story made for herself from scraps.) I think we have to create our lives, our selves, painstakingly and in our own individual ways. And that’s the lesson that Lily has to learn.
Kate: Who doesn’t love a ghost story? And visually, with all that mourning and mist the Victorian era is deliciously eerie and sinister. At the end of the 19th century spiritualism was very fashionable. There is something so appealing about the heady mix of science and superstition. The Victorians thought they could do anything – you can see that in the confidence of their architecture and the explosion of industry. Nothing got in the way of profit.
Their arrogance and self-belief was breath-taking and – in terms of Empire – troubling in the extreme. If they could build bridges, tunnels, viaducts, aqueducts, steam trains etc – then why not contact the dead? Does that seem so extraordinary when they could already bend the world of the living to their will?
I think I also introduced an element of the supernatural to the stories – just a little – to emphasise the heightened theatrical world of the Kitty Peck series. Very deliberately, it owes a great deal to the gothic, melodramatic Penny Dreadfuls that were so popular at the time – and, of course, they were always full of ghosts and nameless terrors of the night.
You feature exotic characters, with the influence of the east. Rose, you have the mystery of Conjuror in your novel, and also the Egyptian Hall in London. Kate, you have Lady Ginger, the docks, bead-jangling spirit mediums. What draws you both to this magic and to such colourful creations?
Rose: I have lived and worked in north Africa and my character Conjuror just walked onto the page, really. Much of our idea of magic originates from ancient Egypt, so it seemed fitting…
I wanted to have a benign male character in Lily’s life – she’s been betrayed by her step-father, abused by Salt – and Conjuror’s fatherly but somewhat mysterious take on life, his kindness, is part of her healing.
Kate: It’s theatre – not so pure and not so simple. I am a failed actress! It’s me performing on paper rather than on the stage. As mentioned above, the melodramatic and the gothic is a great influence on the series. Also, going right back to the beginning of my answers – Dickens!
Lady Ginger owes a debt to Miss Havisham who has haunted me since I read Great Expectations at the age of 13. It’s still my favourite novel and, amazingly, every time I read it I understand anew the betrayals and disappointments.
You both also draw on real people of the time. Kate with Vesta Tilley and other music hall greats, and Rose with Professor Pepper. Are these particular favourites, and are there other real characters that you find intriguing and would one day like to include in your future novels?
Rose: I’m glad you asked that! I’m working on a new novel based on a real-life Victorian and have an idea for another book after that inspired by another real person from the 19th century. This activity in itself is somewhat akin to raising the dead, or perhaps just their illusory images, though I should say that Erasmus Salt is not in any way based on John Henry Pepper, except in the fascination with the creation of ghostly images on stage. Pepper was probably a perfectly decent human being!
Kate: In later years my grandmother loved a cheesy old programme called The Good Old Days, and as a very small child I watched it with her when she babysat me. I adored the costumes (mainly the hats), although the TV programme bore a very slight resemblance to reality!
In terms of using real people in further books, I’m not sure. I think I prefer to be influenced by real characters rather than re-creating them in my fiction. I love Aubrey Beardsley (Victorian again, ‘theatre’ again, sinister again, decadent again!), but it’s his sister Mabel – an actress who was eccentric, vain, and very funny, and also a friend of WB Yeats – who really could walk into one of my books in disguise … who knows?
Well, I know I’ll be first in line to read whatever Kate and Rose come up with next. But for now, I’d like to thank them both for such fascinating and inspiring answers that clearly demonstrate the depth of research and meticulous, serious thought that has gone into the creation of their current novels, The Unforgetting and The Parliament of Shadows.
Essie Fox has written four historical novels published by Orion Books.
Her debut, The Somnambulist, is set in the East End music halls, and was shortlisted for the 2012 National Book Awards. It also featured on Channel 4’s TV Book Club.
Her latest book, The Last Days of Leda Grey, takes place in the world of early silent film and was selected as The Times Historical Book of the Month. Essie also writes the popular blog The Virtual Victorian. She has lectured at the V&A and the National Gallery.
Gatti’s Hungerford Palace of Varieties. Second Turn of Katie Lawrence by Walter Sickert: via Yale University Art Gallery
Miss Havisham from David Lean’s film of Great Expectations: supplied by author
Jenny Hill: via Wikimedia
Penny Dreadful: supplied by author
Pepper’s Ghost stage setup: via Wikimedia
Poster for the Egyptian Hall, Picadilly: courtesy the British Library
Vesta Tilley as a principal boy: via Wikimedia