The Somnambulist weaves a spellbinding tale of guilt and deception, regret and lost love, where every heart holds a secret...and on this page you'll find some clues regarding what that secret might be, beginning with the letter...
is for Acis and Galatea
The Somnambulist was first inspired when Essie Fox visited Wilton's Music Hall for a performance of Handel's Acis and Galatea. This baroque operetta, with its story of unrequited love and the tragic results of jealousy, is featured in The Somnambulist's prologue and provides the reference upon which to set the novel's themes.
is for Bow
The novel's narrator, seventeen-year old Phoebe Turner, lives in Tredegar Square in the east London area of Bow. The square still exists and can be visited today. It has formal gardens within iron railings and the houses which surround them are as grand as any that might be found in the city's affluent West End. For more on the history of Tredegar Square, please see this post from Essie Fox's blog, The Virtual Victorian.
is for Cissy
Cicely Stanhope shares a home in Tredegar Square with Phoebe and her mother, Maud. Cissy is Maud's younger, more glamorous sister who once had a singing career and who, after some years in retirement, is about to make her return to the stage playing the part of Galatea in Handel's operetta, Acis and Galatea.
is for Dinwood
Dinwood Court in Herefordshire is one of the novel's main settings. In reality, the house is known as Hampton Court. Set between the city of Hereford and the market town of Leominster, it is often open to the public and has the most spectacular gardens. But for Essie Fox, the miles of spreading woodlands behind provide the true magic and mystery for what goes on to occur in the pages of The Somnambulist. For much more about the house please see The Virtual Victorian.
is for Eddie Collins
Eddie Collins is an old friend of Cissy's who often visits Tredegar Square. A very fine pianist and composer, he still works in the theatres and music halls.
is for fancy dress
Under her widowed mother's strict rule, Phoebe normally dresses in black, in mourning for the father who died when she was still an infant child. But during a visit to Wilton's Hall at which her mother is absent, Phoebe is persuaded to go on stage, getting 'decked up' in flounces and frills while acting the part of a shepherdess in the chorus of Acis and Galatea.
is for Grave
There are two significant graves in the story of The Somnambulist. One is located in the woods around Dinwood Court. The other is in Bow Cemetery very near to the house in Tredegar Square. Again, that location does exist and can be visited today. Known as Tower Hamlets' Cemetery it is no longer used for burials but preserved as a nature reserve. Read more at The Virtual Victorian.
is for Hammam Bouquet
Hammam Bouquet is a fragrance described in The Somnambulist. It was first created by William Penhaligon in 1872, though Essie Fox hopes any reader will forgive her novel's claim that it might have existed some years before. It was an enduring favourite with respectable Victorian gentleman - something of an irony when considering the perfume's connotations of steamy Turkish baths, of exotic harems and boudoirs that reeked of sexuality. For more on Victorian hammams see The Virtual Victorian.
is for Illustrations
With The Somnambulist featuring music and songs from the Victorian music halls, there is also some reference to the sheet music that was often printed up and sold, usually with ornately illustrated covers. For the fascinating history of Theatrical sheet music covers the V&A is a wonderful resource.
is for Journey
Various journeys occur in the novel, but the most significant for Phoebe Turner is that made to Dinwood Court when she travels by train from London's Paddington station with its great arching structure of steel and glass - one of the engineering feats of industry and grand design so typical of the Victorian era.
is for Kitchens
Dinwood Court (Hampton Court in Herefordshire) dates back to the fifteenth century. Essie Fox once worked in the house as a cleaner during her university holidays, and she and the other domestic staff all ate their lunch in the enormous Victorian kitchens. Whether or not those rooms still exist, they have been re-imagined in the pages of The Somnambulist.
is for Lydia Samuels
Lydia Samuels is a reclusive figure who spends most of her time in Dinwood Court. She will prove to hold great influence over Phoebe Turner's life.
is for Maud Turner
Maud Turner, Phoebe's mother, is depicted here as she may have appeared around the time of Phoebe's birth. She is wearing her 'Hallelujah' bonnet, being a member of a quasi military evangelical church who carried the banners of Temperance and campaigned for all theatres and bars to be closed. But Essie Fox is keen to point out that although loosely based on the Salvation Army which was active in east London at the time of the novel's setting, she holds that organisation in the very highest respect, admiring what it still achieves today in its work with the lost or homeless. For more on the history of the Salvation Army, see this post in The Virtual Victorian. There is also an article on Temperance.
is for Nathaniel Samuels
Nathaniel Samuels is a wealthy Jewish businessman who owns one of London's most prestigious shops - an emporium built upon the trade that came flooding into London at the time of the Great Exhibition of 1851 - the very foundation upon which the present day Harrods in Knightsbridge was founded.
is for Old Riley
The one-eyed and larger than life Old Riley is another of Cissy's theatre friends who often visits Tredegar Square. She had once been Cissy's dresser during her singing heyday. She now works as a seamstress and is not averse to a little dabbling in the occult - and she wears the most outrageous hats.
is for Phoebe Turner
Phoebe is the novel's main narrator. Just seventeen and living in east London when the story begins she has never known any other life than that shared with her mother and aunt in Bow. However, when she travels to Herefordshire to stay in Dinwood Court she finds herself bound in the countryside's spell - all too unaware of the dangers and secrets that place might hold.
is for Quin MacKenna
Quin MacKenna is a friend of Old Riley and Eddie Collins who works as a singer in the music halls. He is also an accomplice in Old Riley's Spiritualist ventures.
is for The Ritual
Every year on November 20th, Phoebe, Maud and Cissy make a visit to Bow Cemetery, there to lay a wreath on the family grave in a tradition known as The Ritual.
is for The Somnambulist
A Somnambulist, which means a sleep walker, is the name of a painting by Millais.. Some said it was based on The Woman in White, the sensational novel by Wilkie Collins. Others thought it to have been based on the heroine in Bellini's La Sonnambula - a very popular opera in which the fictional character of Cissy is said to have once played a starring role.
is for Treachery
The Somnambulistis a tale of deceit and treachery. But who is lying and who is telling the truth, and what could their motives be?
is for Unrequited Love
The Somnambulist is a novel with various examples of unrequited love - and one of its doomed affairs of the heart is exemplified by a beautiful silver locket which contains interwoven strands of hair - a common means of remembrance in Victorian times, whether for living loved ones or as a token of those who had already died.
is for Victoria and Albert Museum
The Victoria and Albert Museum, which is dedicated to the collection of arts and crafts from all around the world, is featured in the novel when some of the textiles' curators hope to purchase Indian antiquities from Nathaniel Samuels' exotic store. Such transactions actually did occur with shops such as Liberty where wonderful objects, both old and new, were sourced from around the Empire.
is for Wilton's Music Hall
Wilton's Music Hall is very dear to Essie Fox's heart. It was while visiting there, attending a performance of Handel's Acis and Galatea, that she was first inspired to write the story of The Somnambulist. The music hall was originally built in the 1850's at the back of the Prince of Denmark bar in Graces Alley in the East End. You can still visit the theatre today and even take a conducted tour to learn more of its fascinating history and how, when its glory days were gone, it became a Christian mission hall which provided thousands of meals a day for those who might well have starved to death during the famous dockers' strike of 1889. If you would like to know more, please do read this post in The Virtual Victorian.
is for Xenophobia
Maud Turner has an irrational hatred of Jews, her antipathy manifested in her scathing treatment of Nathaniel Samuels, even going so far as to claim that he embodies the Anti-Christ. Poverty, along with religious and social prejudice led to great tensions in the east end, the area around the docks being home to many European Jews who had fled from persecution in their homelands.
is for Yellow Wallpaper
The Yellow Wallpaper is a well-known Victorian short story in which a woman's madness is shown through the increasingly disturbing visions she sees in the patterns on her bedroom walls. The yellow Chinoiserie (Chinese-esque) paper with its pretty oriental flowers and birds in one of the bedrooms at Dinwood Court was a style of decoration increasingly popular in the west from the eighteenth century onwards. However, in The Somnambulist its presence is not at all sinister even though it sets the scene for certain acts of madness.
is for Zealot
Maud Turner's long dead husband William was also a zealous Christian who campaigned with the Hallelujah Army and has now been 'promoted to glory'.