Book Review: The Seance

The Seance (Jonathan Cape, 2008), by John Harwood.

I love a good melodramatic Victorian mystery, filled with supernatural trappings, and this novel has them all. There are not one, but two plucky young heroines, occult powers, seances, cruel families, love at first sight, threats of the asylum, mad inventors, villainous husbands, and a sinister country house. There’s also a suggestion that the villain is none other than Jack the Ripper. At the heart of the story is Constance Langton’s search for her real identity, revealed through three separate narratives. Constance’s narrative is set in 1889, with flashbacks to the 1860s in the others.

Harwood properly ladles on the atmosphere. You can’t help but sympathize with Constance, who must endure an emotionally absent father, and an emotionally cruel mother who lavishes all her affection on Alma, Constance’s younger sister. This is one of the reasons why Constance thinks herself a foundling. When Alma dies of the scarlet fever that she has just recovered from, their mother is thrown into a deep depression. Her father leaves Constance to deal with it all, just as soon as she’s old enough, on the excuse of writing a book at his sister’s house.

Her mother’s grief can only be assuaged by trying to contact Alma in the afterlife. Glad to be of some help, Constance knowingly, if guiltily, takes her to fraudulent seances. They are successful, with an unintended consequence. After finally “seeing” and “holding” Alma, her mother happily commits suicide that same night, leaving a note that says, “Forgive me – I could not wait.”

This part of the novel, set in London, serves as a preface to the main gothic mystery of  Wraxford Hall on the Suffolk coast. Do you need me to tell you that Constance inherits the place and its dark past? It’s told through the account of her solicitor, and his former acquaintanceship with a charismatic previous owner, a mesmerist who mysteriously disappeared. As did two others before him, all during thunderstorms. And also told through the account of Eleanor Unwin, the mesmerist’s wife, before returning to Constance and her daring expedition to Wraxford Hall in the company of a band of psychical researchers. Think Victorian ghostbusters.

Harwood keeps the overall narrative flowing, despite dividing it into thick chunks. It falters a bit on the characterization. Both Constance and Eleanor are thoroughly plucky young women, to the point where I sometimes felt they were too much of a muchness.

Wraxford Hall, a decaying Elizabethan pile, is a major character in its own right, with a real brooding presence. I’m giving nothing away by saying that the occult is not taken seriously in this novel – indeed the opening epigram is a recipe for producing a convincing spirit manifestation. It does seem a waste of all the splendid supernatural props – Wraxford Hall being most impressive – to not set a tone of greater credulity before revealing the smoke and mirrors. My willing suspension of disbelief was ready and waiting.

That said, the novel works well without it, relying on the intensity of Constance’s search for her real identity. I’m impressed by the way Harwood subverts my expectation of the obvious dramatic climax being the end of the story. There’s an old wrong to be righted, and Constance is the woman to do it.