My experience of reading these two novels by Rosie Thomas could be summed up by the cliché ‘never judge a book by its’ cover’. I was browsing around on my kindle and looking through my recommendation when I came across Daughter of the House. It had an historical setting pre- WWI onward; a period I’d been reading a lot about in the past year especially the massive social changes around class and gender, brought about during and after the war. It also had a brave, enlightened woman at the centre of the story growing up in an unconventional family involved in the music hall business. I bought it on kindle and soon realised it was the second in a series of books and the first was The Illusionists. I knew from the cover of top hats, decks of cards and magic wands that this was the book for me. It’s rare for me to find a magical novel set in the late Victorian period that I haven’t read. The title seemed familiar though and it was only the next morning that I found (among the many piles of books that litter the corners of my house) I had a hardback copy of the same novel, but had never picked it up and read it. The cover was very different, depicting a bridge over an almost impressionist river scene that told me nothing about the contents inside. A friend had bought me the book when it first came out, but due to that cover the lack of a synopsis on the back it kept being recycled to the bottom of the pile. It shows a difference between buying actual books and kindle copies. I am often alerted to unusual and highly enjoyable novels via kindle store or apps like Goodreads that I wouldn’t necessarily pick up in a book shop.
Of course the bonus was that I now had two great novels to read back to back and I was not disappointed by either of them. Set in 1885 the first novel follows the story of Eliza who is a young woman limited by lack of money whose only choices for the future seem to me the domesticity of an advantageous marriage (an idea she finds suffocating) or a degrading downward spiral towards life on the streets. Despite the massive social changes happening in fin de siècle London, women have less chance of making their fortune and living life on their own terms. Then she meets the charismatic and ambitious illusionist Devil Wix.
Devil is haunted by traumatic events in his childhood, but is determined to become a household name and a successful entrepreneur in the theatre world. We follow Devil’s mission as he puts together a band of quirky misfits to put on the greatest show London has ever seen in the run down Palmyra Theatre. During the 12 years covered by the novel Devil is by turns alluring, brilliant and often comical. However, from his friend’s and Eliza’s point of view he can be elusive, maddening and deceptive when he wants to be. Somehow though, the reader is able to forgive him anything. Perhaps this is because we are charmed by him in the same way Eliza is and we forgive him anything.
His magician friend Carlos is a dwarf in stature but has mighty magical ambitions of his own and with Devil creates new and memorable illusions to stun audiences. Jasper is more of a scientist who tinkers away in his workshop creating the props for the illusions but also an automaton he names Lucy. As soon as Eliza comes into their world it is as if the circle of friends is complete and they work together to create a magical show, but also to promote it in a way that has never been done before and ensures the theatre is packed night after night. Although it seems inevitable that they will be together Devil and Eliza begin a slow dance of courtship. Their budding relationship sees Eliza step outside what is thought to be respectable for a Victorian woman and embark upon an alternative life she never thought possible. For Devil the relationship brings him the stability he has never had and a partner in work and life who can match him for determination, ambition and creativity.
The magical and more supernatural elements of the novel are balanced beautifully with the historical period. Eliza chooses to live in a women’s hostel and work for a living even before she becomes involved with the theatre crowd and it is a bold, modern choice that tells us a lot about her character. Thomas uses Eliza’s sister as the contrasting Victorian ideal of ‘The Angel in the House’. Eliza’s visits to her sister’s home show us that traditional Victorian domestic life, but while Eliza loves her nieces and nephews she doesn’t envy her sister’s position in society and often seems relieved to return to her unconventional life. She treads a very fine line between what is and isn’t respectable by socialising in bars with Devil, Carlos and Jasper, staying alone with Devil in his flat, becoming a life model at the art school and performing on the stage. She is confounded by her need for Devil to be faithful and exclusive to her.
We also see economic change and class changes through the novel in the way Devil promotes his theatre and the audiences it attracts. Whereas music hall was thought to be low culture and only for the working classes, Devil starts to attract a much higher class of clientèle through word of mouth. He uses the modern methods of advertising by utilising the art students to create mysterious adverts across the city and develop a buzz about his show. He also creates street illusions that are easy to transport and perform, then simply sets up in the street to amaze and entice the public. By choosing his streets carefully he attracts wealthy audiences who are happy to spend money and spread the word to their rich friends. His entrepreneurial skills result in an upward mobility for his family so they can live in a beautiful area of London and have more opportunities that he had. This is where the story develops into the second novel and into a background of even more turbulent times in the early 20th Century.
Daughter of the House centres on Devil and Eliza’s daughter Zenobia (known as Nancy) against the backdrop of WWI, the Suffragette movement and the decline of music hall. The novel opens as the family embark upon a boat trip and tragedy strikes when the captain decides they must return to port because of a storm. The boat crashes into the marina and it is a fight for survival for all the children as well as Devil and Eliza. Thomas creates a beautiful metaphor here in Nancy’s fight to stay above the water as her large Victorian skirts and petticoat become water-logged and start dragging her under. This foreshadows Nancy need to live a different life and break free of those Victorian expectations of women, perhaps even more radically than her mother did. In the struggle Nancy not only saves herself, but her brother too and it is here we see the beginnings of her resilience and determination. It is also here that we see the first glimpse of what she calls her ‘Uncanny’ – the ability to see beyond the physical world. Nancy fights against this unique gift and doesn’t want anyone to know about her ability. Yet it is because of this accident that family friend Mr Feather does become aware of her abilities. As his beloved sister is lost in the accident, he begs Nancy to foresee where she is and this episode sets off an obsession that never goes away.
The Palmyra theatre is struggling and Devil has been hiding the true extent of their financial difficulties from his family. Eliza’s role as a mother has meant time away from managing the theatre and Devil does not have the same skills. Eliza loves her children but is frustrated in the very role she never wanted, while Devil flounders in his management at the Palmyra making bad financial decisions and failing to provide what modern audiences want to see. As the crisis deepens Nancy becomes aware that her gift, hidden until now, might be the answer to her family’s problems. The late Victorian appetite for mesmerism, hypnosis and spiritualism has continued into the 20th Century and Nancy’s gift begins to fill the theatre. As the war draws to a close the Palmyra is once again playing to packed houses as grieving families in their thousands want to find their lost sons, fathers and husbands still lying unfound in the battlefields of France.
Thomas shows the social and historical change of three difficult decades so cleverly especially in the wake of WWI as women become more in control of their own lives and a country grieves a generation lost. The need for this generation to forget the horrors of war are shown at the country house parties of Nancy’s theatre friends. The breakdown of class barriers becomes apparent within the family; Nancy’s brother transcends his family’s social class by becoming an officer in the army and attracting a wife from an aristocratic family. Alternative ways of living are being explored with more women living alone, and Nancy’s gay best friends who have set up home together. Yet, we also see what post-war living could be like for the lower classes that acquired injuries and can’t afford adequate care or rehabilitation. Nancy’s brother returns home with shell shock and finds coping with the outside world beyond his capabilities, instead finding solace in his garden.
The book explores Nancy’s struggle with a rare and beautiful gift that can also be terrifying and unexpected. Her rivalry with Mr Feather highlights the darker side of clairvoyance and ultimately ends in unwanted confrontation. We see the need in people who desperately want to hear from their lost love one only to be disappointed and how this disappointment can develop into an obsession and an inability to move forward in the grieving process. Nancy wrestles to maintain the purity and honesty of her gift; never pretending or creating hope where there is none. Audiences fail to realise that she is unable to control her gift because they want reassurance that they are doing the right thing or that their loved one lives on somewhere in the afterlife and is waiting for them. Nancy tries to give no promises and does not offer false reassurance, and when she asked to she feels she has betrayed herself and her gift. It is the difference between true clairvoyance and show business and for Nancy they are uneasy bedfellows. What she sees is not always spectacular nor the happy ending an audience might be hoping for. This dilemma rang true for me as something all people with these gifts might face. It shows that making money from her ‘Uncanny’ is not easy if she does it with integrity.
I would recommend both of these books, but they do stand-alone too. The Wix family are entertaining and intriguing, the historical backdrop is well researched, and even the smaller characters are well written and memorable. Carlos’s determination to overcome his disability is inspiring and his friendship with Devil, like all showbiz partnerships, is full of ups and downs. Eliza’s sister and brother-in-law are there to provide a contrast to the Wix’s unconventional relationship, but their characters are still well-rounded and the relationship between the sisters feels real. Eliza’s realisation that having children is all consuming and life-changing creates an affinity between them. She recognises that even if you do want an alternative way of life, children create a need for a strong family network and support around you. In the early 20th Century women’s lives are changing, but not that much. Eliza’s daughter, Nancy, realises that even though she is more accepted as a strong independent woman she is still hampered by her class and bohemian background. Despite feeling free to pursue her love for a married man, she finds that this freedom is not all she imagined it would be and yearns for more. If you want page turning story-telling with a supernatural and magical twist then these are the books for you.
The Illusionists – ISBN: 9781443436243
The Daughter of the House – ISBN: 9781468311747
Publisher The Overlook House