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In the early 1900s, spiritualism was a popular religious movement in the United States and portions of Europe. Its adherents believed in spirits from another world that could appear and communicate with ours, if the conditions were right. Reports of seeing faeries and other non-human creatures appeared in magazines such as The Strand, and perhaps the most famous tale was the Cottingly Faeries, a series of five photos faked by two sisters in 1917 and 1920. Sherlock Holmes author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle believed in their authenticity and wrote about them, and it wasn’t until decades later that the sisters admitted to using cardboard figures propped up with hat pins. People wanted to believe, and that made facts and doubts easier to ignore.
Katherine Webb’s 2012 novel, The Unseen, occurs primarily in 1911 England, about a decade before spiritualism’s decline in popularity. In it, the vicar, Albert Canning, and his wife, Hester, have just hired a new housemaid, Cat Morely. Cat is a small, sickly, and quiet young woman coming from a mysterious, questionable past. Hester – “Hetty” – tries to ask cat about why she was in prison, but Cat would rather not say, not at first. The Cannings view her employment as an act of charity.
Meanwhile, Albert has had an experience. After attending a lecture given by a young man named Robin Durrant about “the basic tenets of the wisdom religion, aka theosophy,” he invites Robin to stay with them, to continue his search for “nature spirits.” Durrant claims to have seen them before, and Albert is enamored with him. And poor naÃ¯ve Hetty wonders why she and Albert have never consummated their marriage, despite being married for over a year. Cat immediately dislikes Robin, and she and the other housemaid find his presence a major intrusion.
The framing of this story involves a modern element – partial letters dug up with a soldier in 2011. The War Graves Commission found the body in Belgium, and a man on the commission, Ryan, has called his ex, Leah, to come help identify the body. Leah is a journalist, and though she hates that Ryan knows how to draw her back to him, she cannot resist the 95-year-old letters’ implication of crime during “that summer.” The soldiers unknown identity paired with this partial story starts her on an investigation. Though most of the chapters are in 1911, the back-and-forth between centuries leaves the reader trying to make sense of everything along with Leah.
It’s as though she’s trying to be proper about it all, but there’s no way to reconcile what she needs to say with that. And the way she’s so vague – it’s almost like she half expected someone to get hold of the letters and read them, and she didn’t want to give too much away “¦”
The story of Summer 1911 is an interesting one. Webb gives us multiple points of view – Hetty, Cat, and Albert’s journal entries. We also see more of Hetty’s letters, mostly to her sister, and then we flash forward to Leah’s view again. I found that I wasn’t all that invested in Leah’s story and the subplots therein. Though I know that presenting the story in this way is supposed to add to the mystery, I wonder if there might have been a way to do it without the time period shifting. Hetty and Cat’s voices are strong enough to carry the book, and Leah’s isn’t. A journalist who is hung up on her ex and maybe wants to write a book isn’t too interesting the way it is written. I’m not sure, without a closer read, what the best way to remedy this is, but I’m sure there’s a way to make this book even better.
That’s the thing – The Unseen is a very good book that’s just shy of excellent. Connecting the arrival of Cat to Albert and Hetty’s marriage to Robert Durrant and this implied unnamed crime – it’s all very compelling. Webb nicely avoids predictable plot points, except for a couple modern ones I won’t spoil, near the end. Just Cat’s story alone would make a good book. I enjoyed her relationship with George Hobson, a boxer and canal deliveryman. He lives on his boss’ boat, and he finds Cat curious, but he does not pry. She says:
“I did “¦ I did do something. And I have been in prison for it – that part is true. And what was done to me and others like me was far worse than we deserved, far worse than our crime, if crime it was. And after it, I find I’m not afraid. Not of gossip and rumours, or the wretched, petty hags who put them about either,” Cat says, angrily. “And now you will ask me what I did, and what happened thereafter,” she sighs. Such questions seem to dog her, hanging from her neck like dead weights.
“No, I won’t. If you want to tell it, I’ll listen, but it’s not my business,” George says, hurriedly.
The unnecessary adverbs bother me a little – I’m no adverb hater, but I don’t think the dialogue tags need them. What this book did was bring out my inner editor. Because I was sent an uncorrected proof some time last year, I must acknowledge that changes could have been made by the finished edition. What I read, however, is still a really good story. Though The Unseen is over 400 pages long, it moves along with breathless urgency. Even with my editorial complaints, I would still recommend it.
Webb proves an author’s note for her source material – theosophy books, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Coming of the Fairies, along with accounts of prison conditions at the time. All of her research and inspiration is what I think really makes the 1911 chapters so satisfying. It’s easy to see how all these characters get wrapped up in their own stories, scared of having their particular faith shaken.
That spiritualism took such a hold over some people does not surprise me. Humans are always grasping for meaning, for “more” than what their life is. That this movement started before the horrors of WWI, to me, speaks to the restlessness of the British Empire. When people become scared of being honest about the state in which they live, they either choose clarity or they fight. Do we behave without pretense and without apology? Or do we cling to dashed dreams of importance and take the whole building down with us? The Unseen, underneath its specific story, wrestles with these themes, and I’m glad that I immersed myself in its world.
Full Disclosure: William Morrow sent me this review copy. I thank them for the gesture, and I will continue to be fair with my reviews.