Gaslight is the second novel by Eloise Williams, and it is a proper cracker of a story, a hugely exciting gas-lit romp through seedy Victorian theatre life. It is beautifully written, with both atmosphere and elegance, well-researched – and totally gripping! Where the backstage world of Angela Carter’s Wise Children, set just a few decades later, is glamourous and filled with Shakespearean wife-swapping, missing siblings and bedroom secrets – the events of Gaslight occur in a pre-war world and it is filthy. The dirt and grime is engrained in every seam of lace. Disease and malnutrition grips all the characters, drink poisons minds and blurs judgement. Even the most beautiful things they can hope to touch are seeping with green arsenic.
Gaslight is set in Cardiff in 1899, a busy and growing dockland, with surrounding streets teeming with all human life – from the young dock-workers to the affluent and richly-housed new middle classes, and everyone wants to be entertained. We are introduced to Nansi, a foundling of sorts. Her mother disappeared on the day she was fished out of Cardiff docks, and she can’t remember anything else. All she knows is that her mother is like her, with an ocean of red hair and the determination to survive anything. With nowhere to turn she goes to work for Sid at the Empire Theatre; her plan is to earn enough money to keep herself off the streets and eventually to employ a detective to find her mother. Sid controls everything at the theatre, from the details of the wardrobe to the acts that are books and even Nansi’s meagre savings. He reminds Nansi constantly of his role as a ‘Father figure’ to her; from the outset it is clear that he is not to be trusted. But it with no memory and no information to go on, Nansi has no one else who might help her find her mother. So she waits and she bides her time; every free moment is spent looking for clues. Often rambling round in circles, retracing her steps and never finding anything new. To ease her way she is also prepared to take on work thieving to order – mainly Sid’s order.
Sid is as vile and hateful as any of Dickens’ darkest villains. A great deal about Victorian theatre life is crooked; when Constance and Violet join theatre Nansi finds herself pulled into an odd and deeply fraudulent psychic act. Constance, however, seems to know more than she is prepared to tell Nansi. There are unpleasant secrets hidden in every corner of the theatre, and Nansi soon realises that her mother’s identity, and her fate, is one of them.
Eloise Williams’ writing glimmers with intrigue in the warm half-light; the story is fast-paced and tightly plotted. Her characters are fabulous; Gaslight is set at a time when women’s role in society was shifting and the subject of fierce public and political debate; it is a pleasure to see so many female characters, all different, all complex and each powerful in their own way. It is books like Gaslight that are behind comments from booksellers about how the best writing is often to be found in the children’s and young adult sections. The age recommendation on the book of 8+ is unhelpful as it might put off older readers; this would be a perfect book for an adult or children’s book group to look at; it is a great read and full of interesting detail and historical research. Don’t judge a book by its age recommendation – read the reviews, ask a bookseller or talk to a librarian.
For all the doors that Gaslight opens: Victorian street-life, the role of Women at the turn of the century, the golden age of theatre and our changing views on asylums, Gaslight would also make a superb study in a classroom context. Eloise herself comes from a theatre background and her knowledge shows. We are treated to a vivid picture of both life backstage in a Victorian theatre and in the city streets at the turn of the Century. Historical storytelling at its most exciting!
You can find out more about Eloise Williams and her books on her website. http://www.eloisewilliams.com/
Gaslight was written with the support and encouragement of Literature Wales. You can find out more about Literature Wales here: http://www.literaturewales.org