The Whispering Muse by Laura Purcell

This is the second book I’ve read by Laura Purcell; I liked, but didn’t love, the first one I read, Bone China, so was hoping for better things from this one. It certainly sounded good – a Gothic novel set in the theatres of Victorian London – and I wasn’t disappointed at all. I was gripped from start to finish!

Our narrator is Jenny Wilcox, a young woman who has been left to support herself and her younger siblings after her brother Gregory ran off to America with an actress, taking the family savings with him. Jenny is deeply grateful when Gregory’s former employer, Mrs Dyer of the Mercury Theatre, offers her a job as dresser to the new leading lady, Lilith Erikson. Before she even begins work, however, Jenny discovers that Mrs Dyer has not just offered her the position out of kindness – she believes that her husband is having an affair with Lilith and she wants Jenny to spy on them.

At first, Jenny shares Mrs Dyer’s dislike of Lilith, but gradually she becomes concerned about the behaviour of the beautiful young actress. Why is she so obsessed with a watch engraved with the face of Melpomene, Muse of Tragedy – a watch that once belonged to the actor Eugene Grieves, who died on stage while performing Dr Faustus? Could Lilith have formed some sort of pact with Melpomene, to help her achieve her dream of becoming London’s greatest tragic actress? And if so, what will Melpomene demand in return?

The Whispering Muse is divided into five acts, mirroring the five tragedies performed by the Mercury Theatre Company over the course of the novel, beginning with Macbeth. Theatrical settings are usually atmospheric and this one is no exception! I loved the insights we are given into what goes on behind the scenes and the descriptions of Lilith’s powerful stage performances are so vivid I could almost imagine I was watching them from a seat in the front row. The book is wonderfully creepy in places – and a bit gory in others, although not excessively so. What makes it so compelling is that we’re never quite sure whether Lilith really has made a pact with her muse and supernatural forces are at work within the Mercury Theatre or whether the strange events that begin to take place have a more human explanation.

As well as enjoying the fascinating plot, I also found it interesting to see how Jenny’s relationships with the other characters change over the course of the novel. Although I didn’t always agree with Jenny’s decisions, I had some sympathy for her situation – she needs to keep Mrs Dyer happy in order to stay in her job and earn money to support her younger brothers and sister, but the closer she becomes to Lilith the more she starts to feel that Mrs Dyer’s hatred of the actress is unreasonable and the more her conscience begins to bother her. The dynamics between these three characters add extra depth to the story and make it something special. I loved it and look forward to reading Laura Purcell’s other books!

Thanks to Raven Books for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

This is book 5/50 read for the 2023 Historical Fiction Reading Challenge.

14 thoughts on “The Whispering Muse by Laura Purcell

  1. Lark says:

    That’s cool that the different acts of the book mirror the five different plays being performed! The theater makes for a great setting for a mystery.

  2. jekc says:

    I seem to remember in The Corset, Laura Purcell played with the uncertainty over whether supernatural forces were at play or there was a human explanation for events. I enjoyed that novel and The Shape of Darkness which I’ve also read. Look forward to her latest!

  3. Jo says:

    I am intrigued to look out for this. It sounds like I will get on with it better than her other novels I have read. Theatre settings are always a win too

  4. CLM (@ConMartin) says:

    I’ve been meaning to read something by her and I do like books with a theatre setting!

    I am currently reading The Whalebone Theatre by Joanna Quinn, which I am really enjoying – mixture of a family saga and coming of age set between the wars in Dorset. Did you recommend it? I definitely think you would like it.

    • Helen says:

      I haven’t read The Whalebone Theatre, so it must have been someone else who recommended it. It does sound like a book I would probably enjoy – thanks!

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