While this historical novel is about the rise of Spiritualism in the 1800’s and the famous Fox sisters, who created the movement but confessed to being frauds in later years, this is also one spooky read! Although the author gives psychological reasons for many characters’ reactions, there are still strange threads left dangling about button holes, and moist clumps of dirt inexplicably soiling well cleaned floors.
Although historical fiction is often mocked, this novel is told with such cunning and beauty that it deserves to be read. This is a fascinating study of human psychology, but also of times and traditions long past. The sisters are initially afraid of the dark, as an adult warns “Here, folks respect the gloaming don’t they? They know it’s God’s signal to shutter themselves in nice and safe”. The gloaming. The very word raises some kind of cellular memory that instantly raises the hair on my arms.
The girls assault a pedlar, who curses them fearfully. This incident is pivotal to the entire Spiritualist movement, and the ruined lives that unfold. He calls them “hoyden bitches”, an alarming phrase, although it merely means boisterous or high spirited. Literally I used a dictionary throughout this book, eagerly looking up such phrases as bonny clabber, apple flummery, lambrequin on the windows, jackanapes, tintinnabulation…somehow, these old times words evoked old memories, as though this book bridges the gap from ancient to modern. A world where “nasty littles” in shadow grey skin give way to gas light on front porches, and ultimately electric light glowing in every room, allowing people to stay up, and even stay outside for as long as they please, fearless of the spirit infested dark that terrorized earlier peoples.
The rise of Spiritualism took place when Victorians were celebrating death fashions, plaiting hair of recently deceased loved ones to be worn as jewellery by the living, taking pictures of corpses that had been arranged to look as though they were merely sitting and reading a book. Maggie’s husband (a cad) proposes to her by taking her to a cemetery, and pointing out the grave she will one day share with him if she agrees to be his wife. The husband is Elisha Kane, the famed explorer who tried to find the lost Franklin expedition. You just know the relationship will end badly when he tells Maggie, just before she is about to pour out her heart to him: “You’re so wondrously mysterious, Tuttlie, promise you will always stay so”.
At one point Mulligan has the eldest Fox sister wonder “Has there ever been a woman who has not once worn a cloak made of modesty and manners and piety? Soon the cloak hardens into a shell, which is quite useful, as it keeps one from screaming.” The time frame is not that far from the Salem witch hunts, and the Fox sisters themselves nearly lose their lives on several occasions when angry mobs swarm, intending brutal murder, enraged by the women’s “blasphemies”.
I will warn this book is long. There is a fascinating description of the canal transportation system in Upstate New York, not to mention the cultural shift from heavy drinking to tea-totalling. Even so, the book is well worth reading, especially if you’re looking for a few chills on a warm summer evening. Just don’t read it out on your porch after the sun has set. Recall Leonard Cohen’s line while reading this, “magic loves the hungry”. The girls were hungry, in every sense and the ghosts did oblige.
Reviewed by Mary Oxendale Spensley