Laura Purcell: The horrors of the past


03 February 2023
The acclaimed gothic novelist describes how she drew on the sometimes gruesome reality of the Victorian theatre to create her new novel, The Whispering Muse

I’ve never felt that a historical novelist should be limited to one particular period. Still, I find myself returning to the Victorian era again and again. It was a time of immense change and uncertainty, fertile ground in which to plant a gothic tale. As I discovered when researching my latest novel, The Whispering Muse, the spirit of innovation spilled over into the theatre. These years saw the transformation of the pantomime into a seasonal spectacular, programmes replacing playbills, the birth of the matinee and a shift towards more naturalistic forms of expression. The late Victorian period would spawn great writers like Wilde, Ibsen, Chekov and Shaw – it would also be a time of grand theatrical disasters.
The biggest threat to a theatre remained that of fire. Departments were stacked on top of one another, the paint and flammable costumes near to open flames. Many playhouses had burned to the ground before Victoria took the throne and, despite the introduction of an iron safety curtain, infernos remained a constant threat as the use of gas and limelight increased. When creating my fictional theatre The Mercury, I was aware how tenuous the safety of my characters would have been; a fact that was hammered home in my research as I came across not only fires, but a catalogue of eerie deaths upon stage.
My character Eugene Grieves was based loosely upon Frederick Federici, an opera singer who passed away on 3 March 1888 in the Princess Theatre, Melbourne. Federici’s death was remarkable not only for his young age of 37, but the dramatic timing with which it took place. On the opening night of Faust, Federici assumed the role of the demon, Mephistopheles. During his final exit – a plunge through a trapdoor to signal his character’s return to hell – poor Federici suffered a massive heart attack. He was taken to the green room where efforts were made to revive him, but he never regained consciousness. The unfortunate man seemed to have died at the very moment his character descended to the infernal regions; a horrible coincidence.  
Federici’s sad fate gave me the idea of writing an actor who had made a Faustian pact, and so perhaps expected this kind of end. To create his world, I spent more time researching the celebrity circle of the 1880s. The most famous actor of the time was Sir Henry Irving, who would prove a gold mine of inspiration for me. As the first actor to receive a knighthood, Irving was a force to be reckoned with, not only portraying roles with intensity but masterminding sets, lighting, casting and direction as an actor-manager. All the same, there was an aura of sadness behind the success; Irving’s marriage had failed and he was a late bloomer, battling intense shyness to rise through the ranks. His best portrayals remained those of tortured, tragic characters. Irving revered great actors of the past, often buying their personal effects at auction, and it was his rather morbid jewellery collection that inspired the most important object in my novel: the cursed watch. Irving owned a pocket watch once belonging to Edwin Forest, which had stopped at eight minutes past five, supposedly the exact moment the actor breathed his last. I couldn’t resist adding such a gloriously gothic detail to my novel.   
On a more cheerful note, it was Irving’s goddaughter, Edith Craig, who gave me the impetus to write my protagonist, Jenny Wilcox. Like Craig, Jenny is a costume designer, immersed in a world of colour and sumptuous fabric. I spent many happy hours going over Craig’s sketch books, with their material swatches and neat pencil annotations. They can still be viewed in the V&A collection, which is also online, and I would recommend them to anyone looking for a practical insight into the stagecraft of the period. What struck me as I flicked through Craig’s ideas for Shock Headed Peter was that she too was a woman trying to tell a story. She was fleshing out characters with fabric, trying to bring them alive – just as I was attempting to base a fictional character in her world.
Perhaps it was this feeling of connection, more than any particular tragedy, which really motivated me to write a novel set in a theatre. Plays, and story-telling in general, have a wonderful way of joining people together in their shared magic. There’s a sense of permanence, a comforting thought that Macbeth was there for Shakespeare to create, Irving to perform, and Craig to dress – even for me to weave into the plot of my novel all these years later. In a sense, a good play becomes a different kind of theatre ghost. Its characters haunt us through the ages, in the best possible way.

The Whispering Muse by Laura Purcell is published by Bloomsbury.

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Read more from Laura on writing the gothic and the influences that shaped her in the April issue of Writing Magazine, available for pre-order later this month.