September 16, 2007


Arthur Phillips


(September 16, 2007)

I like to think that Angelica is a response to Sarah Water's Fingersmith. Both are stories of lower-class Victorian women thrust into loveless luxury and tormented by forces they do not precisely understand. Both are rashomon tales, told from one perspective and then retold, transformed, from other points of view. Both wonderfully recreate a fresh view of the Victorian world.

Angelica is, I think, Fingersmith done straight — not merely in the sense that it's about heterosexual protagonists, but also because Fingersmith is a Victorian novel about postmodern concerns and Angelica is a Victorian novel about Victorian concerns. 19th century science was working out exactly what difference meant: were women (or Frenchmen, black men, working men) deeply and intrinsically different, as dogs are from cats, or are they pretty similar? Do women think and feel as men do, or are they truly alien? At the same time, 19th century psychiatry is filled with treatments of maladies that simply don't occur much anymore. Were these cases spurious, or fraudulent, or misunderstood? Or did madness once adorn itself in very different garments?

One beautiful moment concerns a group of old actors who habitually call each other by the name of their best or most characteristic part. One aged Shakespearean, who plays an important role in this story, is known as Third.

The concluding chapter, in which the toddler at the center of these events tries to discuss them as an adult with her psychiatrist, seems unecessary to me. Nonetheless, this is a very fine book.