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Interview with wordsmith Essie Fox
Interview with wordsmith Essie Fox

by Katie Antoniou

The Somnambulist is the debut novel from author Essie Fox. The Gothic tale is set in London 1881, Phoebe Turner lives in the shadow of her widowed mother, Maud, who marches with the Hallelujah Army and campaigns for all theatres and bars to be closed. They share a home with Cissy, Phoebe’s beautiful unmarried aunt who sings on the stage at Wilton’s Music Hall. Historic locations like this feature prominently in Essie’s novel, which looks at the many aspects of Victorian culture which we are still fascinated by.

The main character Phoebe then goes to work for a laudanum addict, Lydia in a Herefordshire mansion where she finds herself haunted by the reclusive lady and her strange sleepwalking. She is troubled by dreams of fresh blood in the snow and soon even darker secrets emerge…

Here, Essie Fox shares with us some of the inspirations behind the book, its setting and the lure of the past, as well as her thoughts on modern literary media like blogging and the future of books, both the paper and virtual variety.

MIEN Magazine (MM): The Somnambulist is also a painting by John Millais and is pictured on the first page of the book-was it this work of art that gave you the idea for your story?

Essie Fox (EF): I can’t remember when I first saw The Somnambulist painting – whether in a book or online, but I’ve always loved the work of Millais and something about that one image always stirred my imagination – not least that it is a wonderful title!

Some people think that the painting was inspired by Wilkie Collins’ novel, The Woman in White, which was written about ten years before and caused an enormous sensation at the time. But there was also a very popular opera called La Sonnambula by Bellini which also featured a sleepwalking woman and which toured around the whole of Europe, just as successful as Andrew Lloyd Webber’s productions are today – which brings me nicely onto the fact that The Somnambulist painting has now been put up for sale by its present owners, the Bolton Museum. It is going to be auctioned by Bonham’s on July 13 this year – and I’m hoping to go along to the viewing room and to take a peek. How I would love to buy it. I’ll be very curious to see who does. I wonder if Andrew Lloyd Webber will, seeing as he has a collection of many other Pre-Raphaelite paintings.

MM: Have you always been drawn to the Victorian era? Why do you think we find it so fascinating as a nation?

EF: For me – yes I have. And I’m not really sure why – though I have an idea it might be a lot to do with the invention of photography. The Victorian era is the nearest era in history where we can actually ‘see’ the real people who lived then – their expressions, their clothes, their activities.  And then, there is the literature of course, with so many classics we still read today, and I do love a good period drama. But perhaps I was also influenced by the fact that my grandmother lived in an old Victorian coaching inn which even had its own ballroom and stage, and I loved to imagine who might once have sang or played there. And generally, the architecture of the town I grew up in was very ‘Victorian’ too – so I’ve never had that much difficulty imagining the settings.

As a nation, I think we’re still a little obsessed with ‘Empire’ whether we realise it or not. Could it be something to do with Queen Victoria presenting such a strong ‘mother’ figure? Politically, the resonances are still there, as indeed are the tensions – and again with the buildings and culture – that genteel surface of manners that still often survives but hides all manner of scandal beneath! I also think we’re still very much influenced by the industrial revolution and all the developments that brought along which allowed great expansion in wealth and so much more fluidity and ‘movement’ – both through the social classes and trade, and actually via the railways, which allowed people to travel much further for work, and also for tourism.

MM: How much historical research did you have to do in order to write The Somnambulist? Did you make any surprising discoveries?

EF: When I first visited Wilton’s music hall in East London I knew I wanted to write about it – and so the research began. The hall used to produce some wonderful acts, such as George Leybourne who achieved great success with his song, Champagne Charlie, and was sponsored by Moet champagne to drink nothing else for the rest of his life – which sadly ended in his early forties as I think he took his sponsorship deal a little too seriously! But more recently, I’ve discovered the sad news that Wilton’s hall may well soon have to close, having failed in its bid for the Heritage Lottery fund with which the administrators were hoping to repair some severe structural problems.

As I also set my narrator’s home in East London’s Bow, I had to do a lot of research into the general area – the houses, the docks, the cemeteries, the parks – and that was all fascinating work.  But, coming to discover by chance that East London was the original home for the Salvation Army really was a ‘happy accident’, and then learning of the Army’s Temperance creed, and its evangelical mission to save all the sinners on the streets and close down the bars and music halls went on to became an integral part of my novel’s plot.

MM: Your character Phoebe Turner visits her aunt performing at Wilton’s Music Hall in the book; did historical London sites like this inspire your writing?

EF: When I first visited Wilton’s, I remember sitting in the darkened hall during a performance of Handel’s Acis and Galatea, and seeing the stage lights glinting off the hall’s lovely brass barley-twist pillars and suddenly just ‘knowing’ that this venue would form the opening scene for my novel. The novel hadn’t even existed in my mind before, but the very next morning I woke up with three distinct female characters in mind – and one of them was Phoebe, the narrator of the novel who first visits Wilton’s music hall one night to hear her Aunt Cissy singing in a production of Acis and Galatea.  That might seem oddly highbrow for a music hall and in truth a whole opera probably was - but then again I learned through my research that Wilton’s often hosted opera singers from Covent Garden who would stay in costume at the end of a show and then jump into broughams and drive across London to sing at Wilton’s all over again!

Another inspiration is a glorious garden square in Bow – and Tredegar Square really does exist and is well worth a visit to see the gorgeous houses there, and to visit the Morgan Arms pub on the corner!
In my story, Phoebe also visits the nearby Tower Hamlets Cemetery – which today is conserved as a nature reserve – quite overgrown, and with gothic graves, and really decidedly spooky.

Another building that inspired me – but not one that exists in London – was Hampton Court Castle in Herefordshire where I worked as a cleaner during my university holidays. It is an amazing place, a sprawling medieval, castellated house with later Victorian additions and great swathes of woodland around. What surprised me was something I discovered towards the end of writing, which was that the house’s orangery which provided a setting for some of my scenes had been built by Joseph Paxton, who designed the Crystal Palace for the Great Exhibition of 1851 – which also features in the novel!

With novels like The Crimson Petal and the White being successfully adapted for the small screen, would you like to see The Somnambulist as a film?
Oh, that would be a dream come true – I’ve already cast some of the character in my mind. Miriam Margoyles for Old Riley!

MM: We’re always thrilled to find authors who are intrigued by the past but also embrace the internet. Your stunning website design features clippings from Victorian newspapers and your blog ‘The Virtual Victorian‘ is a wonderfully informative  and visually arresting read. Do you follow any blogs yourself?And do you think devices like the Kindle will ever make books obsolete?

EF: I love blogs – though sadly I don’t have as much time as I’d like to read them right now – the same with my ‘to read’ pile of books…so I rely a lot on link tips from Twitter or Facebook and my interests are very eclectic – from current affairs and fashion to art and history blogs. There’s a roll of good historical ones on my own blog, The Virtual Victorian, but I’m always longing to discover more…when I have a break from writing…

I don’t think Kindle will makes books obsolete – at least not for the foreseeable future. There’s still something wonderfully tactile about holding a book and its cover in your hands. But for travelling and factual works the Kindle really is wonderful – and as we’re only at the start of this technology I’m sure it will go on to develop and who knows how ‘wondrous’ it will in five or ten years time!

MM: What are you working on at the moment?

EF: I’m working on another Victorian novel – this time about an artist who is obsessed with mermaids – very much inspired by the paintings of John Waterhouse. I won’t say anything more just now for fear of jinxing it. I am a little superstitious!

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