My experience of finding these two novels by Rosie Thomas shows that the old cliché ‘never judge a book by its’ cover’ does sometimes apply. I was browsing on my kindle (a lethal pastime) and looking through my recommendations when I came across Daughter of the House. The cover had a magical, ‘circus’ feel that I loved so I had to discover more. It had an historical setting pre- WWI onward; a period I’d been drawn to that year. It also promised a brave, enlightened woman at the centre of the story about growing up in an unconventional musical hall family. I bought it based on cover alone, then realised it was the second in a series of books.The first was The Illusionists and I knew from the cover of top hats, decks of cards and magic wands that this was the series 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 to read. The cover was very different, depicting a bridge over an almost impressionistic 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 and the lack of a synopsis on the back it kept being recycled to the bottom of the TBR pile. It showed me a difference between buying physical 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 due to the cover. 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 be 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 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. Two friends work alongside Devil. His magician friend Carlos and set/props designer Jasper. 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 has also designed 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. Although it seems inevitable that they will be together, Devil and Eliza’s courtship is a slow dance. 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 detail. Eliza chooses to live in a women’s hostel and work for a living even before she becomes involved with the theatre crowd. This is a bold, modern choice that tells us a lot about her character. The author 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 social mobility throughout the novel. Devil promotes his shows in a way that has never been done before. First he utilises Eliza’s art student friends to create mysterious adverts across the city, that develop a buzz about his show. He then creates street illusions that are easy to transport and perform, then performs these ‘pop-up’ illusions in the street, handing out leaflets to stunned onlookers. By choosing his streets carefully he attracts wealthy audiences who are happy to spend money and this ensures the theatre is packed night after night. Due to this method of promoting his theatre, and the different audience he attracts, Devil changes what is acceptable as entertainment in upper class circles. Whereas music hall was thought to be low culture and only for the working classes, Devil exploits the human need to ‘keep up with the Joneses’ and makes his theatre the place to be seen.. 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 to the family 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 Devil and Eliza and all of their children. 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 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 growing role as a mother has meant taking time away from managing the theatre and Devil does not have her administrative or financial skills. Eliza loves her children, but is frustrated in the very role she never really wanted. Meanwhile Devil flounders in his management of 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 only 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 soon begins to fill the theatre. So, as WWI 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 the wake of WWI as women become more in control of their lives and a country grieves a generation lost. For those who survived, the need for to forget the horrors of war can be seen at the raucous country house parties of Nancy’s theatre friends. The breakdown of class barriers becomes apparent as Nancy’s brother transcends his family’s social class, becoming an officer in the army and attracting a wife from an aristocratic family. Alternative ways of living are explored as the author shows us more women living alone, and Nancy’s gay best friends who have openly set up home together. Yet, we also see what post-war living could be like for the lower classes who acquired injuries, but 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 loved one only to be disappointed. A disappointment that 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. It isn’t like picking up a telephone, she doesn’t know who or what will come through. However, audiences want the reassurance that they were seeking, or the guarantee their loved one lives on somewhere in the afterlife and is waiting for them. Nancy tries to give no promises and does not want to offer false reassurance, if forced to give the exact promise they seek, she feels she has betrayed herself and her gift. This 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 and it shows that making money from her ‘Uncanny’ is not as going to be as easy as her father’s magic tricks; if she is going to do it with integrity.
I would recommend reading 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 unexpected affinity with her sister. She recognises that even if you want an alternative way of life, children always 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.