The Sealed Letter (2008): Emma Donoghue

★★★★

When Emily ‘Fido’ Faithfull bumps into her old friend Helen Codrington, quite by chance, it feels like destiny. The two women haven’t seen one another for years: their once-close friendship came to an awkward end seven years ago, just before Helen and her vice-admiral husband moved to a British naval base in Malta. Now it’s 1864 and sheer good fortune has brought them together on the streets of London. Of course they have changed. Fido has become a passionate reformer and supporter of social justice, earnestly devoted to her work at the Victoria Press. Helen is… well, Helen. Just seeing her again brings the light back into Fido’s life. She is light and cheerful and colourful and perhaps a tiny bit frivolous, but that’s how she’s always been. One thing does trouble Fido, though, and that’s the Scottish Colonel Anderson who seems in such close company with her married friend. When Helen begs Fido for help in dealing with the Colonel’s attentions, Fido leaps to the rescue: to feel needed again, by Helen, is a thrilling feeling. Soon, however, Fido begins to realise how shabbily she has been tricked, and her association with Helen may prove to be her undoing.

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Things in Jars (2019): Jess Kidd

★★★★

A strange, sharp-toothed child, bleached of colour and trailing the scent of the sea. Sinister kidnappers. The ominous underbelly of London’s class of collectors, where even the most particular tastes can be indulged. A seven-foot-tall housemaid. And a dandyish pugilist ghost. In my first encounter with Jess Kidd’s writing, I was taken by the hand and led deep into a deliciously disturbing story, told in prose that sparkles with the cadences of an Irish brogue. At its heart there is Bridie Devine, a formidably down-to-earth woman who makes a speciality of taking on unusual mysteries – and who is about to encounter a case which will push her expertise to its limits, as well as forcing her to face up to a dark period of her own past. Blending Victorian Gothic with a roistering tale of London’s underworld, this is a deeply enjoyable adventure.

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The Binding (2018): Bridget Collins

★★★½

Colleagues at work have just set up a book club, which is an exciting development, especially because they’ve picked out some really interesting titles. The first meeting I’m able to make is devoted to The Binding, which I devoured yesterday during a long flight and which turned out to have a delicious mixture of flavours: historical fiction, fantasy, mystery and romance, all wrapped up in evocative prose. We follow Emmett Farmer, a young man who is recovering from a serious illness that has wiped out most of his summer. He’s just beginning to regain his strength when a troubling letter arrives for his parents. The binder has asked for him to be her apprentice. Emmett doesn’t understand why an old woman, shunned for her unspeakable craft and regarded with fear, could possibly want his help; but nor does he understand the new undertones of suspicion with which his family regard him. What happened during his illness? And why, when he reaches the binder’s lonely home, in the middle of the marshes, does he feel so sickened by certain rooms? Can Seredith, the binder, his new teacher, harness what she believes to be his deep natural talent? And what exactly does a binder do, anyway?

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The Impossible Life of Mary Benson (2011): Rodney Bolt

★★★★½

The Extraordinary Story of a Victorian Wife

On 23 June 1859, eighteen-year-old Minnie Sidgwick married her distant cousin Edward Benson. The couple had known each other since Minnie was a little girl and Edward had hoped to marry her ever since she was eleven, when he had admired her brightness of spirit and her intelligence. Perhaps marriages of this kind did sometimes prove to be happy. But not this one. Minnie, or Mary as she became as an adult woman, passed from being an anxious, eager-to-please daughter to being an anxious, daunted wife. As her husband vaulted up the ecclesiastical hierarchy, Mary Benson played the role of dutiful clergyman’s wife, culminating in the greatest challenge of all: the wife of the Archbishop of Canterbury. But who was this woman who stood behind one of the most influential men in the land? And why should we care about her? In this utterly engaging biography, Rodney Bolt brings together family documents, diaries, letters, novels and contemporary material to give us a deep and absorbing picture of an extraordinary woman whose experiences offer a fascinating picture of the Victorian age.

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The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter (2017): Theodora Goss

★★★★

The Athena Club: Book I

This is the first full-length novel I’ve read by Theodora Goss, though I’ve previously enjoyed her short stories Come See The Living Dryad and Red as Blood and White as Bone. She has a wonderful way of rethinking myths and fairy tales, and she brings the same creative spark to this delicious Gothic mashup, which reminded me very strongly of the Penny Dreadful TV series. It all begins when Mary Jekyll’s mother dies, leaving her orphaned and struggling to keep up the grand family house near Regent’s Park. Mary is mystified by the discovery of strange payments made from her mother’s account, which suggest that her dead father’s unsettling collaborator, Edward Hyde, might still be alive. Even worse, hidden letters suggest that Dr Jekyll used to be part of the Alchemists’ Society, a sinister secret network of scientists who have been using their daughters as subjects for their unethical experiments. Mary sets out to find some of these other gifted women, hoping they can shed light on her father’s work, but time is of the essence. Young women are being brutally murdered in the East End, and it swiftly becomes clear that there are links to the Society; but how can the killer be stopped? Full of adventure, derring-do and strong female characters, this is a glorious and loving romp through a whole subgenre of 19th-century English literature – and a darn good story to boot.

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The Children’s Book (2009): A.S. Byatt

★★★★★

In the immortal words of Granny Weatherwax, ‘I aten’t dead’. On the contrary, I’m clawing my way out of a period dominated by the noble (but absolutely demented) effort of writing an exhibition catalogue, from scratch, including research, in three months. (A word of advice: don’t ever do this.) There’s been lots of other stuff going on, some delightful, some rather gloomy, but holidays are now less than a month away and I’m starting to get a grip. I have been reading and seeing operas and concerts and plays, and I fully intend to write about as much as I can remember through the fog. First up is an easy one: I’ve just finished A.S. Byatt’s The Children’s Book, which I first read ten years ago and which enchanted me just as much second time around. Byatt is a rare writer: erudite, intellectual, compelling and technically brilliant, with a profound but unsentimental sense of compassion. I’ve read several of her novels, but The Children’s Book is my favourite for the way it vividly evokes bohemian life at the turn of the 20th century in England. It captures the magic of childhood before going on, ruthlessly, to show how adults create children, only to destroy them.

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Rustication (2004): Charles Palliser

★★★½

Charles Palliser has been on my radar for a long time, although this is the first of his novels that I’ve read. He is famous for his gothic Victorian-style historical fiction and I’ve been keeping an eye out for his magnum opus, The Quincunx, but it just so happens that Rustication cropped up in my local second-hand bookshop the other day. Couched in true Victorian fashion as a rediscovered manuscript, it’s told in diary format, unveiling the story of Richard Shenstone. In winter 1863 Richard returns home from Cambridge, whence he has been ignominiously expelled (a fact he chooses to keep quiet for now), hoping for an indulgent welcome from his sister and recently widowed mother. Their newly straitened circumstances have brought his mother to a bleak, windswept, isolated house on the edge of a salt-marsh. As if the location wasn’t grim enough, Richard swiftly realises that he isn’t quite as welcome as he thought he’d be. Worse still, he isn’t the only one who’s hiding something, and he’s about to find that no one can be trusted.

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The Corset (2018): Laura Purcell

★★★

Having enjoyed Laura Purcell’s novel The Silent Companions – a creepily Gothic tale of ghostly presences and paranoia in a remote country house – I was attracted to her follow-up. Once again set in the Victorian period, this has a similar atmosphere to her debut: again Purcell teases us with possible supernatural events, but I felt The Corset didn’t have quite the same eerie originality as The Silent Companions. It focuses on the relationship between two young women: Dorothea Truelove, a wealthy heiress of twenty-five who spends her time doing good works rather than snaring a husband; and Ruth Butterham, a teenage murderess awaiting trial in the prison which is one of Dorothea’s pet projects. Two very different worlds collide as Ruth confesses her history to Dorothea: not just the women’s drastically different upbringings, but also the worlds of science and superstition, logic and fantasy, reason and the unexplained.

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The Fortune Hunter (2014): Daisy Goodwin

★★★

Every time I go to Austria, I’m overwhelmed by the amount of Sisi memorabilia that’s on sale. The Empress Elizabeth isn’t as iconic a figure here in England and I really know very little about her, except that her life wasn’t a very happy one, so I hoped that this novel might give me a bit more insight into a compelling historical figure. Set in 1875, it focuses on the avid horsewoman’s visit to England for the hunting season, and her alleged romantic liaison with the dashing cavalry officer ‘Bay’ Middleton. Honestly, I can’t say I know massively more now than I did before, as this turned out to be a romantic novel with its credentials worn proudly on its sleeve – mainly interested in burning glances across ballrooms – but it made for a pleasant enough distraction.

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Victorian Giants: The Birth of Art Photography

Cameron: Sadness (Ellen Terry)

(until 20 May 2018 at the National Portrait Gallery, London)

Shouldering up against the wall, the girl turns her face away from the light. We catch her in an unguarded moment, her blouse slipping off her shoulder and her hair mussed, her fingers tangling in her necklace. This is the celebrated actress Ellen Terry at the age of seventeen, photographed by Julia Margaret Cameron during her brief, ill-suited marriage to the much older painter George Frederick Watts. It isn’t a portrait but an allegory, titled Sadness, and Cameron gives us the impression of trespassing on something deeply personal. It’s one of the most arresting images from a clutch of wonderful mid-Victorian photographs currently on view at the National Portrait Gallery, tracing the early days of this art form through the works of four pioneers: Cameron herself; her teacher Oscar Rejlander; Lewis Carroll; and the ‘amateur’ artist Lady Clementine Hawarden.

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