The Whispering Muse by Laura Purcell
Published by Bloomsbury Raven on February 2nd 2023
Available from West End Lane Books and All Good Bookshops
What They Say
Be careful what you wish for… it may just come true.
At The Mercury Theatre in London’s West End, rumours are circulating of a curse. It is said that the lead actress Lilith has made a pact with Melpomene, the tragic muse of Greek mythology, to become the greatest actress to ever grace the stage.
Suspicious of Lilith, the jealous wife of the theatre owner sends dresser Jenny to spy on her, and desperate for the money to help her family, Jenny agrees. What Jenny finds is a woman as astonishing in her performance as she is provocative in nature.
On stage, it’s as though Lilith is possessed by the characters she plays, yet off stage she is as tragic as the Muse who inspires her, and Jenny, sorry for her, befriends the troubled actress. But when strange events begin to take place around the theatre, Jenny wonders if the rumours are true, and fears that when the Muse comes calling for payment, the cost will be too high.
What I Say
I have been a Laura Purcell fan from the first moment I read her debut novel The Silent Companions (if you haven’t read that yet – I would absolutely recommend it, but please don’t come back to me if you need to sleep with the lights on for a week after reading it!).
As well as being brilliantly written, and evoking period detail and palpable tension in every page, I love Laura’s novels because they depict women who face situations where their resolve and morality is tested, and show how even though they may be constricted by the social expectations of the time, that they want only to do what is right for them and their family.
In The Whispering Muse, the protagonist is a young woman called Jenny Wilcox, who finds herself as the head of the family after her elder brother Greg leaves the family in disarray after stealing from Jenny’s employer and taking all they have. Jenny is dismissed from service, and she and her siblings face an uncertain future.
When she secures a job as a dresser at The Mercury Theatre, where Greg worked before her, due to the generous and gregarious Mrs Dyer, the owner’s wife, it seems that maybe Jenny has a chance to secure a future for her family.
Jenny is made dresser to the star of the theatre, a fiery and demanding woman called Lilith, who is determined to be famous and adored, and seemingly has Mr Dyer enthralled and ready to indulge his leading lady on and off stage. Mrs. Dyer is not blind to what is happening, and tasks Jenny with spying on Lilith, and offers her money to do so. Although she is torn, Jenny understands the difference this money could make to her family and agrees to become her spy.
Right from the start, Jenny and Lilith clash. Lilith is every inch the diva Jenny suspects her to be, and her dedication to her acting is bordering on the obsessive. Lilith is consumed by her desire to be the most feted actress of her generation, whatever the cost. There is an incredibly awkward scene at a party when Lilith is given a watch depicting Melpomene, the Greek muse of tragedy by Mr Dyer. This turns out to be the very watch Mrs Dyer was desperate to own, having belonged to an actor she adored, and this only fuels her suspicion and hatred of Lilith even further. Bound by circumstance, Jenny now becomes another pawn in Mrs. Dyer’s game, as she forces her to carry out schemes to attempt to drive Lilith away from the stage and the precious watch she desires.
As Jenny gets closer to Lilith with the aim of helping Mrs Dyer, Jenny sees Lilith in an altogether different light. A young woman who is driven to succeed certainly, but also a woman who is vulnerable, who knows that her worth is measured in the tickets she can sell and the money she can make for the theatre. Jenny and Lilith form an unlikely friendship as they understand who is actually the biggest threat to both their lives, and by coming together, they can both get what they want -at a price.
Ever present is the spirit of Melpomene, the muse which seems to not only push Lilith to give the best performances of her career, but also starts to take her over and seep its way into every part of the theatre, causing accidents that cannot be explained, and deaths that create such distress and uncertainy, that no one feels safe. Laura does this so convincingly, that it never feels forced or simply done for shock value. From the very start of the novel, the spectre of The Mercury Theatre looms large, and the world inside seems so far removed from the one outside, that you feel a real sense of dislocation and wariness from the start.
It would have been very easy to make The Whispering Muse melodramatic, and reliant on tried and tested gothic tropes to unsettle the reader. However, in the hands of Laura Purcell, it becomes a novel that places Lilith, Jenny and Mrs Dyer directly at the heart of the narrative, and their needs and desires are the driving force behind the decisions they make. The consequences of all their actions come together to propel the story forward, but it is the unknown force of Melpomene, and the havoc that she wreaks as she seeks to possess the theatre and all those on the stage that is the most dangerous and unstoppable part of the novel that we cannot predict.
The Whispering Muse is a novel filled with dramatic tension, but it also brings to the fore issues such as the commodification of women, duty and desire, social classes, and the transient nature of fame. In having Lilith, Jenny and Mrs Dyer as the main characters, we see three women all at different stages of their personal and professional lives, and I felt that their depiction showed that they had more in common that they would ever want to admit. Melpomene may be the undefinable spirit that wreaks havoc on those who fall prey to her, but the desires and drive of the women inside the Mercury Theatre imbues the novel with an even more compelling and powerful story.
I absolutely loved it.
Thank you so much to Bloomsbury Raven for my gifted proof copy.