His and Hers Review: The Goddess and The Thief by Essie Fox
March 3, 2014
Uprooted from her home in India, Alice is raised by her aunt, a spiritualist medium in Windsor. When the mysterious Mr Tilsbury enters their lives, Alice is drawn into a plot to steal the priceless Koh-i-Noor diamond, claimed by the British Empire at the end of the Anglo-Sikh wars.
Said to be both blessed and cursed, the sacred Indian stone exerts its power over all who encounter it: a handsome deposed maharajah determined to claim his rightful throne, a man hell-bent on discovering the secrets of eternity, and a widowed queen who hopes the jewel can draw her husband’s spirit back. In the midst of all this madness, Alice must discover a way to regain control of her life and fate…
Kate and Rob share their thoughts on Essie Fox’s latest novel.
Essie Fox has written three novels, all of them set around the margins of Victorian society, where propriety and reputation become harder to define, strange conventions constraining a world of sensation, spiritualism and strangeness. In an era when so many aspects of pubic life were uncompromisingly predetermined, especially for women, Essie’s characters stray across those borders into unknown territory, exploring the hinterland of 19th century British culture, the unspoken beliefs, practices and diversions that so many engaged in despite their potentially scandalous nature.
The Goddess and The Thief first transports us to India, with all its heat, life, death and sensuous experience. For the wife of Doctor Charles Willoughby, in India supporting the military, it is too much – too strange, too oppressive – but for his daughter, Alice, it’s home, in all its colour, noise and variety. There are vengeful or generous gods just around the corner and wild animals in the undergrowth, and this numinous atmosphere, full of potential persists throughout the novel. At some points, reality and dream collide and merge; we, and Alice, are sometimes overwhelmed by extraordinary visions, real and drug-induced, and what in India was marvellous and exotic, in Windsor becomes sinister, part of an ambitious and covetous plot requiring the seduction and oppression of Alice herself.
Windsor is depicted by Fox with the sparest of brushstrokes, echoing how this royal English town represents a loss of freedom, light and joy for Alice, as she is left to live with her unpleasant and supremely selfish aunt. Closeted indoors, forced to be complicit with her aunt’s fraudulent seances, Alice finds herself hemmed in by her situation as a young woman with no formal education or independent means. Fox creates an narrative tone that is increasingly oppressive and suffocating, as the supernatural starts to bleed into Alice’s everyday life and her handle on what is real and what is not becomes ever less secure.
Reading The Goddess and The Thief, I felt occasional flashes of familiarity, historical cultural references within the narrative and also hints of other novels: the suffocating horror of Mary Lennox’s orphaning and confinement in an isolated country house, in The Secret Garden; hints of madness, switched identities and mystery reminded me of The Woman in White; the transformative power of India made me think of the caves of E M Forster’s A Passage to India. I was pleased to see that Essie herself mentions these and others as inspirations to her writing.
I found The Goddess and The Thief to be a darkly seductive novel
I found The Goddess and The Thief to be a darkly seductive novel. It is intense, unrelenting in its Gothic intrigue; despite its claustrophobic aura, I was drawn in and on and on to the shocking conclusion.
With The Goddess and the Thief, Essie Fox paints a picture of Victorian England in the grips of a fascination with the exotic and the otherworldly. Britain still rules over India, home to Alice in her younger years, while wealthy members of British society long to communicate with the spirits of those now passed on.
From the bright and vivid life she lives in India, with green and luscious gardens inhabited with wildlife, Alice suddenly finds herself suffocated by her new life in Windsor and the role she is forced to place by her Aunt Mercy. Mercy is a fraudulent medium, using every trick in the book to fleece her wealthy clients and offer them the hope and comfort they want to leave. But when Alice begins to have visions herself, everything changes. The charismatic Lucian Tilsbury enters, offering his promise of different life for Alice, but with her aunt the pair scheme to take advantage of this supernatural fascination with Alice used as a pawn.
With possession by spirits and recollections of tales of Hindu gods nothing is quite what it seems. As the story progresses, Alice becomes trapped by her position within society and also the machinations of the charismatic Tilsbury. He becomes a true monster, willing to risk his life for the diamond, and lying, cheating and seducing the women around him for his own needs. Much like Alice, we are drawn into his elaborate plot to steal the Koh-i-Noor diamond and return it to its rightful home in India. Alice yearns to return to the place of her childhood but the cost of this voyage is dreadfully high.
Fox’s novel was a delight to read
With an intriguing cast of characters, from the exotic through to high royalty, Fox’s novel was a delight to read and as I turned the pages I was drawn in much like poor Alice was into this intoxicating Gothic story.
Don’t forget that we are running our own event as part of the Book Festival. We’ll be discussing Victorian history with two acclaimed historical novelists; Essie Fox, whose bookThe Somnambulist was shortlisted for the National Book Award, and Wendy Wallace who wrote The Painted Bridge– longlisted for the Desmond Elliot prize.
Wednesday 5th March 2014, 7.30pm
The Waiting Room The Street with No Name (off Queen Street) Colchester CO1 2PQ