“My eye was drawn to the far right-hand corner where the shadowy silhouettes of two men were following at a distance, as if fearing to wake her in case she fell. But, I suddenly knew there must be a third man, and I couldn’t believe I’d not noticed before…a second shadow fell over the path, right next to her own, thrown down by the light someone else must be holding, towards which she steadily progressed, and in two or three steps she would surely be saved by whoever was waiting, just out of the frame…”
This book is quite an enjoyable rendition of a Victorian sensation novel to me, flourished with backdrop of Wilton Music Hall and references of some famous people and acts of the Era, for instance, George Leybourne with his famous song “Champagne Charlie” and the “contrivance” of spiritualism. Indeed, this is a difficult read to me at times, with literary references existing throughout the book which kept racking my brains out deducing the symbols and metaphors that the author implies; and acknowledging at times that my English level was incompatible and a hindrance. Still, I could feel the passion and the message that the author conveys in her novel. I think like the same with the painting, the Somnambulist by Millais, everything has two sides of a coin. With the secrets exhumed along in the plot, we could be on one hand appalled towards characters with their misdeeds but feeling their emotions and motivations drive every action and thought in one’s prespectives which resulted in unbearable fates, consequences and conflicts in connection with one another. With that said, it is an enjoyable journey for novel-aholics to dissect strengths and weakness of humankind, and undoubtedly to practice a kindness of empathy in a hostile world when sinful characters in a book voice out a painful confession to us jury so as to seek acquittals and sympathy, like Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë, or Jezebel’s Daughter by Wilkie Collins with his absorbing epistolary writing.
There are interesting matters not related to the book connected to my reading experience. One is the character of Cissy (Mrs Stanhope), the once famous stage singer who returned to perform Acis and Galatea. When I read the first few pages, she reminds me of an actress named Mrs Jordan (1761 – 1816), one of the mistresses of William IV due to the fact that they were both unmarried but calling themselves “Mrs”. Indeed, many contemporary strolling players and theatrical performers need to endure a series of unfortnate events. They both shared high-profile of glamour and glitters on stage but untold tragedy and misery down under. Only Mrs Stanhope has an affair with the proprietor of the Samuel’s Emporium but not the King.
Another matter is the indiscreet act and obsession towards Cissy Stanhope in view of Nathaniel Samuels. This “cringing” fascination, which would be regarded as abnormal pedophiles to date, was prevalent phenomenon of the Victorian time. This relationship reminds me of a biography of Effie Gray by Suzanne Fagance Cooper that mentions a trgic life of one of the Pre-Raphaelite muses and sister of Effie Gray, Sophy. In this biography, the author underlines that the illness Sophy endured throughout her life – anexoria – was triggered by subscious mind of staying in puberty and physical innocence just like her irresistible protrayals in paintings. She died at a young age of 38. Just like the biography, this novel also implies the unspeakable truths and misery underneath the “fairer sex” of the time playing with readers’ minds. I actually feel a kind of prejudgement while reading it when the author in the beginning seems to emphasize the innocuous and virginal physicality of a 17-year-old Phoebe. In this case, I tend to have views towards her own behavior similar to Maud Turner because Pheobe grows an excitable affection toward the opposite sex in a physical way with the revealing sex scenes, which is nothing but opposition of vice to me. However, as it grows out, I could also feel suppression as regards the unfair treatment of men in the physical contact with the “weaker sex”, that the actions are crude indeed.
With the view of her niece and heorine of the story, Phoebe Turner, the curtain rises, going along the novel, her psychological development is underlined along the journey and in this case finding that the secrets are hidden underneath and all that glisters is not gold. What I am also overwhelmed and immersed regarding the Somnambulist is the faith of unversalism and salvation in the story, just like the name of “Stanhope” (Stand hope). It might not always be a religious case, or Christian universalism of the “Hallelujah Army” mentioned in the story and the rivulary between Maud Turner and Cissy Stanhope on one’s advocation of mericful and philanthropic acts against her sister who rots in Hell because of her lascivious vice and theatrical career, but the acknowledged belief of Victorian authors that concatenation of muserable consequences are disguises of silver lining; while the act of valour and virtue are instilled in oneself, blessings will come in the end with the ultimate enlightenment of a brighter hope and strength.
All in all, I think it might be a fair choice to read this book alongside Victorian classics, as you might develop some deep thoughts in mind after reading it.