In 1856, the young doctor Nathaniel Kerner makes his way north to Crakethorne Manor in Yorkshire: his first placement as an alienist or mad-doctor. He hopes to find an asylum full of progressive ideas and enlightened leadership, but it soon transpires that the enlightened spa treatments and extensive gardens described in the brochures are fictions. Instead Crakethorne is governed by the unstable Dr Chettle, who eschews modern notions of treatment in favour of the questionable science of phrenology. His new home isn’t all that Nathaniel would have wished. And yet there is one aspect which captures his imagination: Victoria Adelina Harleston, his beguiling patient.
Littlewood’s last novel, The Hidden People, dealt with popular superstitions of changelings and fairy powers, likewise set in Yorkshire in the mid-19th century. Here she turns her pen to another, though more common aspect of weird Victorian belief. Young and idealistic, Nathaniel hopes to find a more compassionate form of treatment than the cold-water baths, constraints and electric shocks inflicted upon the Crakethorne patients. Haunted by his father’s suicide, he hopes to redeem himself by helping others. He dreams (rather presciently) of a talking cure, and when he receives a letter from the mesmerist Professor Lumner, he thinks he may have found the answer. Certainly, he is sceptical – and he becomes increasingly so, as Lumner seems to become a rival for the attentions of the beautiful Mrs Harleston – but it seems worth trying. Little does Nathaniel realise that he’s about to open a Pandora’s box which could cost him his patient, his career and even his sanity.
Moving between Yorkshire and London, the novel takes us into the eerie worlds of mesmerism and spiritualists, ‘entertainments’ which seem to have had a great crossover appeal. Littlewood draws us in more deeply than other authors might: as the novel progresses, you can never be sure what’s real, what’s fictional and what seems to be real: Nathaniel becomes an increasingly unreliable narrator, captivated by his obsession with Mrs Harleston. The difficulty with this is that the reader seems to be expected to buy in to the power of the supernatural, or at least to accept that certain people are susceptible to certain ‘powers’. There are certainly points when the story veers into melodramatic ghost-story territory, rather than straight historical fiction: that’s fine for the long, dark winter nights when one’s looking for a bit of a chill down the spine, but at the same time it means that the story is a tiny bit unsatisfactory in parts.
When discussing The Hidden People, I admired Littlewood’s scene-setting and the same is true here: there is a great deal of period colour and the language feels spot-on. And yet the book sprawls just a little: I felt it could have been trimmed down slightly, and there were just too many coincidences for me to feel entirely convinced by it all. For those who enjoy the growing genre of dark Victorian Gothic fiction, this will prove a welcome addition, wrapped about with fogs and spirits and dangerous beauty; but it probably won’t be everyone’s cup of tea. I think perhaps I’m just going through a phase where I prefer slightly more rational explanations in novels, but that’s a personal preference. I was interested to see that Helen expressed similar reservations.
Speaking of the Victorian Gothic genre, which other books would you recommend? This might not fit the bill entirely, but I remember very much enjoying Michael Cox’s The Meaning of Night and its sequel; and Charles Palliser’s The Quincunx is another book that always comes to mind when I think about the genre, though I haven’t yet read it. And of course there are things like The Wicked Cometh, which I wrote about only recently, where the terrors of the night are all too human…
I received this book from the publisher via Netgalley in return for a fair and honest review