08 September 2020

Review: Spirited by Julie Cohen

Spirited by Julie Cohen book cover
* Copy courtesy of Hachette Australia *

Post-mortem photography has always fascinated me. Popular in the Victorian era, grieving family members sometimes had photos taken of their loved ones after death to preserve their memory. You might have seen photos like this of the dearly departed resting in their coffins. However, families also posed the deceased in seated and sometimes even standing positions (with the aid of broomsticks and ropes) in order to have individual and family portraits taken. These photographs became treasured keepsakes and formed part of the fascinating mourning process during the Victorian period 1837-1901.*

After the recent disappointment of a TV program set in 1880s Dublin called Dead Still which centres on a mortuary photographer - it was the comedy angle that killed any hopes of this becoming a new favourite - I was all the more primed to read Spirited by Julie Cohen which promised to deliver on this intriguing subject matter.**

Spirited is an historical fiction novel featuring two women set in 1850s Victorian England during the time of spiritualism. Viola is an amateur photographer in a complicated marriage and grieving the loss of her father, and Henriette is a spirit medium with a mysterious past.

I was engrossed by Henriette's story and could easily have dwelled in a book solely focussed on her character. However the reader is also privileged to learn about Viola's husband Jonah and the reasons he remains haunted by his experiences in the Siege of Delhi in 1857.

Each of these characters is struggling with some form of grief when we meet them, and their separate search for meaning seems to unite them. Photography was a great way to illuminate the relationship between Viola and Henriette while unintentionally highlighting the line between science and religion.

Spirited by Julie Cohen is an atmospheric novel with some beautifully tender moments. It touches on the spiritualism movement of the time, contains multiple love stories and explores the different ways in which people process trauma and grief, perceive cultural differences and struggle for female agency.

Highly recommended.

Carpe Librum!

My Rating:

* For more on mourning etiquette in this period, you might want to check out my review of Necropolis - London and Its Dead by Catharine Arnold.
** Feel free to recommend any books on post-mortem photography you think I might like in the comments section below.

Available from Booktopia 

Would you like to comment?

  1. Sounds like a good read, a bit different - which I like! Slightly macabre too.

    1. Thanks Theresa, I think you'd like this one, it almost had a bit of a gothic feel to it at times.


Thanks for your comment, Carpe Librum!