20 January 2023

Review: The Whispering Muse by Laura Purcell

The Whispering Muse by Laura Purcell book cover

* Copy courtesy of Bloomsbury *

I know it's early days yet, but it's just possible that The Whispering Muse by Laura Purcell has gone straight from being one of my most highly anticipated reads of 2023, to being one of my favourite reads of the entire year. I absolutely adored this!

Set at the Mercury Theatre in Victorian London, Miss Jennifer Wilcox accepts a job offer from Mrs Dyer, the wife of the Mercury's owner. Fallen on hard times - the cause of which is revealed later - Jennifer must provide for her family and despite being brought low by her circumstances, eagerly accepts the position of dresser. Jennifer will need to make and mend all of the costumes, style hair and organise the accessories for the leading actress at the Mercury.

Unable to refuse and eternally grateful for the position of dresser to Lilith Erikson, Jennifer soon learns there's more to the situation. Mrs Dyer explains that her husband has been bewitched by the woman, and Jennifer is to keep a close eye on her. The reader is thrust straight into the social politics of the theatre, and additional meaning and nuance is communicated in the different plays the characters stage throughout this historical fiction masterpiece.

Reading The Whispering Muse put me in mind of City of Girls by Elizabeth Gilbert but I suspect that's only because I haven't read too many novels set in a theatre. The books are set in different countries and eras - 1940s New York and Victorian London - however the leading lady there (Celia) was just as awful as Lilith. In fact, my favourite quote from City of Girls works perfectly for Jennifer and Lilith too!

You see, Lilith Erikson is a vain, ambitious and arrogant woman, intent on attaining recognition for her prowess on the stage at any cost. And I really mean ANY cost and our protagonist is soon fed up with her behaviour and seeming obsession with a cursed pocket watch.

Looking over at Lilith at a gathering, Jennifer observes:
"She would have been arresting in her fashionable black evening gown, were it not for her sour expression. She looked like she'd sucked on a lemon. Her discomfort cheered me more than the champagne." Page 64
The Whispering Muse is being promoted as a gripping tale of obsession, superstition and ambition, set against the atmospheric backdrop of Victorian London and the description is spot on!

Enriching my reading experience was the fact that I was also reading Andrew Lloyd Webber's The Phantom of the Opera Companion. At the time of writing, I've attended the show in the State Theatre in Melbourne a total of 4 times, with my final attendance last night! This allowed me to enter a theatre environment and watch the cast and goings on with fresh eyes. What must it be like back stage, what are the relationships between the actors, what really happens in the dressing rooms and costume wardrobes?

I'll be reviewing it soon, but the Companion also describes the set design, history of the show and the creation of the music, making it a perfect yet unintended and equally gothic companion to The Whispering Muse.

This is an atmospheric novel about class, ambition, loyalty, envy, power and obsession and I was truly gripped as I flipped the pages to witness the slow destruction of certain characters. Jennifer experiences conflicting loyalties between Mrs Dyer and Lilith and her determination to avoid becoming collateral damage in their war made for compelling reading.

In addition to the drama unfolding between the characters, the theatre setting, the backstory of the pocket watch and suspicious and deadly accidents at the Mercury, the little nods to the era (young Bertie with a bad foot pasting together matchboxes to earn his keep and his older brother working in a hat factory) were the icing on this creepy Victorian cake.

The Whispering Muse by Laura Purcell is a gothic triumph!

My Rating:

Would you like to comment?

  1. High praise! Thanks for sharing your thoughts

    1. Thanks Shelleyrae, it's going to be a stand out for the year, I'm sure of it!

  2. High praise for this early in the year! High praise indeed!

    Thank you for sharing your review with the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge

    1. Thanks Marg, fingers crossed many more readers enjoy this as part of your reading challenge this year!


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