Essie Fox. The Virtual Victorian
Essie Fox is the author of the ‘Somnambulist’ and the forthcoming ‘Elijah’s Mermaid’ both set in the Victorian age and brimming with dark deeds and melodrama. She also has a blog ‘The Virtual Victorian‘.
The book seems to have the flavour of a Victorian sensation novel. Was this deliberate?
Yes, absolutely. When I studied English Literature at university, the module I enjoyed the most was ‘The Victorian Novel’, especially the feverishly thrilling narratives produced by the Sensation writers.
That interest continues to this day, with many of the genre’s audacious themes woven into my Neo-Victorian novels – even though the initial plan had been to construct a contemporary story (albeit with a ghost or two who once lived in the Victorian age.) But, once the process of writing began I felt comfortable, more natural in style, in the past. The historical research was exciting. And, as far as my central character went, well, the prospect for ignorance and physical alienation was more credibly achieved by placing her in the nineteenth century.
You seem to be firmly rooted in the Victorian era. What is the fascination of that era for you?
I believe that my fascination for the era stems back to when I was very young, when my connection to the Victorian world would have been through the old black and white films so often televised on Sunday afternoons. I remember the rain lashing at the window, snuggling up to my mother’s side on the sofa and watching the flickering murky worlds of ‘Fanny by Gaslight’, or ‘Wuthering Heights’ – all the threat and passion and darkness that I now hope to emulate.
Another experience from my youth, and one which firmly established my interest in Victorian times, was exploring the house where my grandmother lived: what had once been a Victorian coaching inn, in a market town in Herefordshire. I would enter the old ballroom (by then used for storing sacks of grain and agricultural machinery – all the stock of my grandfather’s trade) and stand upon the small dais, or stage, with its tall marble columns either side, between which an orchestra once would have played. I loved to imagine the dancers who once whirled around the floor, to hear the swishing brush of silk, and the hissing of gas lit chandeliers – whereas, in my reality, what was left of the crystal chandeliers now dripped with nothing but spider’s webs.
‘The Somnambulist’ is a mixture of real and fictional events and places. How much research did you do for the sake of authenticity?
As far as the main settings are concerned I already knew most of them at first hand. Some are from my childhood in Herefordshire, and others from my later experience, while living in London’s East End.
Wilton’s Music hall still exists and is open to the public today. The oldest surviving London hall, it is based in Wapping, in the East End. I myself first went along to attend a production of Handel’s Acis and Galatea – during which I found myself inspired to open a novel in that very place, and with a Victorian performance of that very same operetta.
Not so very much further east are the grand stuccoed houses of Tredegar Square, and the Tower Hamlets Cemetery. Bow is a fascinating area, with some areas of prosperity (much wealth having come from those merchants who traded at the nearby docks) and others that are very poor. But the fact that the area has lacked financial investment over much of the past century means that many original buildings remain; all steeped in the ghosts of history.
Dinwood Court (which is actually called Hampton Court, though it is quite unconnected to the more famous palace near London) is a grand castellated house in Herefordshire. Just as I have described it in the pages of The Somnambulist it is surrounded by densely grown trees – the woodlands in which I once walked as a child. And when I was somewhat older, on university holidays, I was hired to work as a cleaner there, then being quite free to explore the inner realms of the wonderful house that had enchanted me for years. When I was a little girl, whenever my family’s car drove past, I would sit with my nose pressed up to the window and beg for the driver to slow right down so that I could peer out for a little while longer and wonder who lived there, and what they did.
As far as other ‘place’ research went, I re-read many Victorian novels as well as social histories. Mayhew’s work was particularly useful, as was an online resource that is called ‘Victorian London’. ‘Google’ is a wonderful tool often bringing up unexpected facts that can then be incorporated. For instance, Samuels’ Emporium, a magnificent shop in The Somnambulist that is situated in West London was very much based on Harrods – after coming to learn that its founder had a similar business background to my imagined Nathaniel Samuels.
How did you weave your story between the two, to make reality and fiction blend without jarring?
My editor once said that my novels ‘wear their research lightly’. But I work very hard to achieve that end – not to have passages of ‘info dump’ regarding period detail. Once the first draft of a novel is done I usually remove several thousand words; all of which are necessary at first to ‘get my head’ into the plot, to really know the place and time. But when I feel on surer ground I gradually prune a lot of them out. I think this is particularly important when writing in the first person – when the character behind the voice would not find anything extraordinary about horses and carriages in the streets, or in the Victorian clothes she wore – and would certainly not be inclined to describe them in minute detail.
You used your art skills for a time in your varied career. Is there any chance of you creating a graphic novel, as ‘The Somnambulist’ certainly lends itself to this medium? Wilton’s Hall and the surrounding area (as it was in the Victorian times) would be visually captivating.
A graphic novel – what a wonderful idea! However, since starting to write, I’ve not been tempted to so much as pick up a pencil, much preferring to paint with words instead. However, it would be a dream come true if either of my novels were ever to be dramatised.
You were an editorial assistant for a time. Have you found this experience helpful at all for your writing and if so in what way?
When I first came to London I worked for the Telegraph Sunday Magazine, and then for George Allen & Unwin who, at that time, published all of Tolkien’s work. But when my daughter was born I preferred to work from home, and that’s when I started to draw and paint and – almost by accident – became immersed in the world of design: a career that lasted twenty years.
But, deep down I always longed to write and, when at last I came to try, it’s true to say that my previous experience made me aware of just how difficult it is for a writer to achieve success. There is so much competition, and then the decision to publish a book is based as much on the ‘market’ and financial considerations as it is on the quality of the work. For that reason, a novel really has to shine. And first impressions mean a lot. Presentation must be professional. There’s nothing more off-putting to read than a scrappy page or file.
What I didn’t know then, but do now, is that however exciting it is to think that a story is finally done, a writer should then put their work away, for at least a month or two. It’s amazing how such patience pays off – what errors are suddenly obvious when you come to look with fresher eyes. In fact, one key thing about publishing is the need for patience and restraint. Even when a book has been sold, it can take up to a year or more before it appears in printed form. And, for that very reason I wish I’d started to write before, because novels take so long to complete – and I want to write a lot more of them!
How did you come to write your next book Elijah’s Mermaid, another slice of mysterious Victoriana?
To be honest, I hadn’t really thought about what my second book might be. However, I had a two book contract with Orion Books and when I met up with my editor the first thing she wanted to know was what the next novel was going to be about. Really, off the top of my head and very much influenced by the art I’d being looking at back then – a great deal of J W Waterhouse who is known as the modern Pre-Raphaelite – I suggested a story to be based around an artist who is always painting watery themes, and who is increasingly obsessed with portraying his muse as a mermaid or nymph. I went on to elaborate about settings in brothels with murals of mermaids on the walls, about a grand house on the banks of the Thames, and a host of other characters – from black-veiled madams and their dandy pimps, to writers of Victorian fairy tales whose lives cross and then merge with dire results, entwining the respectable world of Victorian high art and literature with the much murkier demi-monde where unspeakable deeds are going on.