Angelica, by Arthur Phillips

This is a puzzling novel from 2007. And deliberately so. It is billed as a ghost story, and it certainly is. And usually I do not like ghost stories. But as I began this work, I had to admit at how enjoyable it was. Even though it also had a suggestion of horror, which I like still less. But I realized I was enjoying this novel because it is so beautifully written. And it was also a family story, which I also relate to, a story of the tension between Constance and Joseph Barton, as well as between each of them and their daughter of four, Angelica.

Their story unfolds in the London of the 1880s, and is related from four differing viewpoints. First, from that of the wife and mother Constance, who believes the ghosts she sees are also being experienced by her daughter. And who sees these ghosts as serving the needs of her husband, who, she decides, wishes to win from her the affection of their daughter.

The next section is from the viewpoint of Anna Montague, a spiritualist who makes her living advising people how to get rid of ghosts. She is a very practical woman, whom this reader accepted at face value, as she makes the purpose of these ghosts seem, like her, more down to earth, more practical than mystical.

The third section we see from Joseph’s point of view. He is a research scientist who seems truly in love with his wife, and who appears to be a normal man legitimately puzzled by his wife’s new conduct, so different from that of the charming girl he married. And the final, and short, section is from the viewpoint of a mature Angelica as she tries to analyze what happened between her parents when she was a child.

But like Henry James, Phillips appears to want to turn the screw on his readers. Because before he begins his novel, the author quotes Sir Everett d’Oyly: “Haunting can emerge from the forgotten depths of our own past….Memories and ghosts are not so easily distinguished as previous generations have assumed.” And this is the fulcrum on which Phillips has poised this novel. Are the ghosts real? Are they only in the mind of Constance? Or should the memories of both parents be challenged? And what exactly are these apparitions that are distorting the reality of their lives?

The emotional lives of Constance and Joseph dominate this household. After giving birth to Angelica, and then suffering three miscarriages, Constance is warned that she risks her life if she has another child. So she has withheld herself from her husband for more than three years. Which prompts both anxiety in her and frustration for Joseph. And culminates in her leaving her marital bed in order to sleep in a chair in Angelica’s room, standing guard over her. For Constance has seen a ghost hovering over her sleeping daughter at night, a ghost which suggests her husband’s presence, and which seems to signal his sexual designs on the young girl. A conclusion which is re-enforced when Angelica tells Constance she wishes one day to marry her father.

The story then takes on a more practical bent. Anna Montague enters the house and offers Constance her practical advice on how to defeat these apparitions. She acknowledges to herself that Constance will be a fruitful client, but she persuades her, and us, that she believes there are truly ghosts to be removed from the house and that, in doing so, she will not take advantage of Constance Barton’s wealth. She also supports Constance’s belief that husband Joseph is likely behind these ghosts. One should note that in the novel’s time frame of the 1880s, spiritualism and ghosts were a commonly accepted presence in this Victorian world.

Joseph, on the other hand, is not aware of these ghosts, only that his wife is acting mysteriously. He is also persuaded by a Doctor Miles that women in general are flighty creatures and need to be handled firmly by their husbands. While this novel subtly probes the psychology of this family from a modern novelist’s perspective, this is the one point where it truly reflects the psychological beliefs held about women in the male world of London in the 1880s.

Thus, the first section ends with the reader suspecting that Constance is trending toward insanity out of sexual repression, but also not being sure whether there may or may not be real ghosts. The second section ends, however, with the practicality of Anna convincing the reader that either these are real ghosts or that she and Constance truly believe that the ghosts are real. While the third section convinces us of Joseph’s reality, that there are no ghosts, and that all is in the mind of Constance. Whereupon, the final brief section, from the viewpoint of a mature Angelica, tries to have it both ways. She has convinced herself, she says, that “there was a ghost,” and that her mother “struck down the man who invited that ghost into our home.” Which act “evicted” the ghost as well.

Indeed, that early scene in which Constance drives a knife into the ghost is perplexing. For we later realize that the three sections, of Constance, Anne, and Joseph, cover the same time frame and the same events—but are being described from their three separate viewpoints. The problem arises when the sections from Constance’s view and Joseph’s view seem to end so differently. First, because Doctor Miles, who has been called to the scene, seems to act differently. And, second, because the author introduces Third, a mysterious friend of Anne, who suggests, if only symbolically, the final act. But is it by Constance or by Dr. Miles and his colleagues? Which is why, although normal literary logic is on the husband’s side, Angelica has to convince herself in her quote above what she believes truly happened. And that Arthur Phillips uses her conclusion, in turn, to convince the reader. Or at least to understand what he, the author, has intended. Or does one? For Angelica says she has no memory of being abused, wondering if Constance pretended seeing the ghosts rather than admitting her husband’s actual abuse.

One reads this novel, first, because it is so beautifully written. And, second, to learn what is going on. The blend of memory, psychology, spiritualism, and family intrigue is also fascinating to the modern reader. But the resolution, as with James, is confusing. For if one has a sense here of what the author intended, he also makes sure we are not certain. (April, 2019)

The Trial of Elizabeth Cree, by Peter Ackroyd

The author likes to blend fiction and history, and he does it in this 1994 novel quite effectively. Such as when Karl Marx and George Gissing sit alongside his fictional characters in the British Museum. But he also blends other factors, such as the sexes, with females playing males, and such as the contrast between the reality of violent death and the illusion of the theatre.

This novel opens with an execution. Of the Elizabeth Cree of the title. For the murder of her husband. We then backtrack to her early life and her trial in the London of 1881. In her struggle to move out of poverty, she initially found bit roles in the theatre. In fact, the artifice of the theatre becomes a major theme of this novel. An artifice that will be exemplified by her dressing up as a man in order to explore the city of London.

Alternating with Elizabeth’s life are excerpts from a diary kept by a serial killer, a kind of Jack the Ripper but apparently based on a real, historic figure. In the novel, this diary writer is John Cree, Elizabeth’s husband. For whose death she is being tried and executed, although we do not know if she truly killed him and what might have brought her to do so. In his diary, however, Cree goes about viciously murdering innocent victims. These murders are described in brutal detail—indeed, too great a detail for me—which is apparently to convey to the reader the true horror of the crimes.

Also alternating with Elizabeth’s life are the lives of historic figures who, like John Cree, gather regularly in the Reading Room of the British Museum. Karl Marx and George Gissing have in common their interest in the poor people of both London and England, and soon become intellectual friends. But even as they become effective characters, and even suspects in the murders, one wonders why they are present in this novel. The eventual answer seems to be the historic verisimilitude that they offer. Although Gissing’s response when suspected by the police is especially moving.

Meanwhile, further chapters introduce John Cree as a reporter with a minor publication, but who has never fulfilled his ambition to write successful plays. He and Elizabeth take to each other, but when they marry, she informs him that because of her violent upbringing she cannot allow him to make love to her. This is not further explored, but the reader does recall her theatrical past when she used to like to dress as a man.

A secondary theme of the novel is the golem. This monster-like creature of Jewish legend that can be created by people under emotional stress is rumored to be the true serial killer. And prompts considerable fear in the populace. While none of the characters in charge take such a monster seriously, the reader definitely knows that the golem is not the perpetrator of these murders—although its imagined presence extends the novel’s theme of the tension between artifice and reality.

For a while, it is unclear what this novel is all about. Is it about the cruel serial murders? Is it about the historic figures, and how they react to a poor and violent society? Is it about illusion, which begins in the theatre? Or is it simply a murder tale in which Elizabeth and John Cree will play major roles? These questions are continually raised in the first half of the novel, as the reader is exposed to various incidents and varying viewpoints.

But as the second half of the novel begins to concentrate on the Crees, it becomes clear that this is their story, including their increasingly contentious marriage. Whereupon, near the end, the author offers a grand surprise. Some critics apparently think that he has earlier provided clues to that surprise. But I cannot find a valid connection between such clues and the author’s final revelation. And so, I do not buy it. It comes across to me as an arbitrary decision by the author. Not as a sudden revelation of character.

And then he compounds this miscalculation on the final pages with a death that is apparently meant to be a cruel irony. But for me, it is simply stale frosting on a half-baked cake.

Despite these qualms, I thoroughly enjoyed this novel. The blend of history and illusion, of historic figures and fictional figures, of actual events and fictional events, of a series of murders and detective work, and of insights into the minds of different characters, including the killer—all these factors drew me into this volume. Even when I was not sure where the author was headed.

What also drew me into the novel was the enhanced reality of Ackroyd’s London. Valerie Martin describes it in the New York Times: “all its awful, teeming, endless variety, with the dark alleyways peopled by criminals, beggars, and children, its unbreatheable air, its pea-soup fog, its carriages rattling along streets lined with prostitutes…its warm smoked-filled theaters, its cool, airy, quiet museum library, its actors, its murderers, its writers, its intellectuals.”

On the other hand, the author probes too deeply for me into the idea of illusion. I found the least interesting part of the novel to be the moments early on that capture life in the theatre, both on stage and behind the curtain—especially the emphasis on Dan Leno as a great comedian. At the end, I could see the reason for those scenes, but the detail did not work for me. It seemed to be there for its humor in an otherwise serious novel.

Perhaps this is in part due to my lack of knowledge about the historic world of English entertainment. That, for example, Dan Leno was a major figure in that world in 1880—so much so that he figures in the title of the English version of this novel, along with the Golem. (What a juxtaposition!) Whereas, I related to Karl Marx and George Gissing, both because I know of them and because they are treated here more seriously.

By itself, this novel does not turn me onto other novels by Ackroyd. But if I found an intriguing premise in a novel of his, a unique blend of known fact and unknown fiction, I would be tempted to explore it. For I do like to read the flights of an author’s imagination. Of which the best example for me is Stephen King’s 11/22/63, about an attempt to block the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. (July, 2018)