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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Fanny and Stella (2013): Neil McKenna

★★★

The Young Men who Shocked Victorian England

London theatres were notorious for their seedy reputations, but the events of 28 April 1870 were shocking even by the standards of the West End. As the audience filed out of the Strand Theatre, two garishly-dressed ‘ladies’ were arrested by police officers, who accused them of being men in drag. Carried off to Bow Street police station, the women were revealed in due course to be Ernest Boulton (known as Stella) and Frederick William Park (known as Fanny). McKenna’s book unfolds the story of their extraordinary trial for indecency and delves into the secret gay underworld of 19th-century London. It’s a fine story, but its historical credentials are undermined by a relentlessly salacious tone and by McKenna’s fondness for floridly narrative, unsubstantiated assertions.

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The Crow Garden (2017): Alison Littlewood

★★★

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.

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The Wicked Cometh (2018): Laura Carlin

★★★

In the dark streets of early 19th-century Holborn, people are disappearing. Men, women and children vanish on their way home from work or after a pint in the pub. As the smogs thicken in the narrow streets, orphaned Hester White studies the handbills pasted up on the dank walls, begging for news of lost loved ones. It’s a bleak time to be poor in London and, when Hester suffers an accident near Smithfield Market, and is swept off for recuperation in the house of a wealthy surgeon, she thinks that she has escaped the dark belly of the underworld once and for all. Little does she know that she is only being drawn deeper into danger. A tale of Gothic threat and forbidden love, this novel reads like a cross between Sarah Waters and Grand Guignol.

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Fingersmith (2002): Sarah Waters

★★★★

As the kind of person who likes to read the book before seeing the film, I was keen to read Fingersmith before the related Korean period drama The Handmaiden comes out on DVD. I’d held off reading it so far because it was the only Sarah Waters novel I hadn’t read and I was saving it as a treat. She’s a magnificent creator of character, atmosphere and dramatic tension, and all those qualities are present and correct in this dark, unexpectedly labyrinthine tale of secrets, schemes and lies in Victorian England.

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