Sharon Gosling has done something incredibly special in this book returning to the Victorian era so much earlier than her wonderful The Golden Butterfly novel this time we go to the late 1870s with a wonderful tale blazing with female empowerment and voices. it is a book that I thoroughly and heartily recommend for fans of Historical fiction, but also of daring girls as this tale is in particular a powerful one.
There is the hook of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle ( with nods throughout for fans of his writing) a dash of Penny Dreadful Seances and ghosts beneath the streets of Edinburgh and canny orphans, gangsters with the flavours of the Shelby Brothers, fantastic action and daring but ultimately it is the sisterhood that shines in these pages.
Zinnie lives underground in the Old Edinburgh that’s being raised in glory by architects; in the dark subterranean basements, the streets of Writers Close still remain and are still inhabited by the poorest of Edinburgh including Zinnie and her two sisters.
Used for information and investigating favours by the young Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Zinnie makes her way through life deal by deal, coin by coin; but when rumours of a ghost rattles the basement community and littlest sister Nell gets sick something has to change, and it’s going to start when Sir Arthur Conan Doyle invites Zinnie to attend a seance…
“Ladies and gentlemen,” she said “our medium is ready for us.”
This time Sharon has stepped outside the Victorian expectations and located her attention in Edinburgh inspired by the subterranean world of the old Edinburgh town built gloriously upon by Victorian architects yet underneath was shelter for people with nowhere else to go.
This setting away from London is welcome it shows readers a fuller view of the Victorian era that there were urban population issues in cities across the UK and they manifested in different ways as urban planners were largely not as concerned with solving housing for the poor themselves.
The House of Hidden Wonders is a study into the experience of the poorest in Victorian Edinburgh, the conditions, the expectations and attitudes towards the orphans, the criminal underclass, the destitute, the unwanted and yet those that prevailed as many of us can trace our ancestry more to the poor than to the rich. There is darkness, sadness and there may even be disbelief at the conditions and disparity, but it is extremely well researched and a eyeopening introduction to social history, and a reminder of how far we have come and yet still how far to go.
the apparition glowed. Zinnie stared at it across the hole in the floor, afraid but fascinated at the same time. Had Conan Doyle been right after all?
I also particularly enjoyed the look at the Victorian superstition. The Spiritualist and movement with seances, table turning all sorts of ghostly communication with the dead was so popular that it was de riguer to have a seance after your dinner party. Of course Arthur Conan Doyle is famously known for having been a deep believer in the afterlife and spiritualism so much that he personally investigated and vouched for the Cottingley Fairies. In 1879 Britain was at the very edge of a second boom in mystical and magical fashion ranging from Theosophy to The Golden Dawn and Aleister Crowley and William Butler Yeats quarrelling over whose secret rites were the best, and in The House of Hidden Wonders, Gosling shows how swathes of rich society were ready and willing to be swept away into the Gothic romance of it all.
“No doubt, had he been alive, my husband would have held the same opinion. one of the advantages of having been left alone in life is the luxury to do just as I please.”
What is particularly special in House of Hidden Wonders is the wonderful but history correct diversity juxtaposed constantly against the privilege of the rich and male.
From the freedom is an upper-class lady achieved upon widowhood to the struggles of the very real Dr Sophia Jex-Blake experienced to be qualified as a doctor because of course English institutions still refused to award even a bachelors let alone doctorate degree where Scotland was different, well until they changed their minds too.
I also really enjoyed the experience with the other silent females of history, the homeless orphan Zinnie and her Irish immigrant sister Sadie again groups that existed but are largely invisible in British history.
Wonderfully Sharon reminds the reader of the British BAME population in the United Kingdom prior to Windrush. This is something that I endeavoured to include as much as possible when I was a history teacher and yet it’s still a struggle to communicate even so today despite the efforts of historians in this field. Most powerfully though Sharon also includes experience of the disabled and neuro divergent through Aelfine for whom as touched upon in the book John Down had only recently published his groundbreaking study into the syndrome that even today bears his name.
All of these females are largely silent voices in history their experience is seen as unimportant to the rich white males who wrote history books that actually had a chance of being published that is unless these females did something extraordinary of note such as why Dr Jex-Blake is remembered but not as feted in the mainstream as much as other Male Victorian figures despite the odds that she overcame and the good she did.
Zinnie stood on Lady Sarah’s steps. It was half a mile and an entire world away from Mary King’s Close.
Overall, this is a powerful book that is a fabulous adventure tale but underneath is layered deeply with the experience of women in the Victorian era that is powerful testament to the struggles across classes. There is also lightness and sweetness with a watch for it Easter Egg referencing The Golden Butterfly and no doubt wonderful gifts dotted about for fans of Arthur Conan Doyle’s writing but will hopefully send young readers off to find out about Dr Sophia Jex Blake too.
This book packs so much into its pages, I cannot recommend it highly enough!!
Look out for the blog tour from Monday, I’m kicking things off with a Guest Post from Sharon speaking about its Edinburgh setting.
The House of Hidden Wonders by Sharon Gosling is published by Little Tiger Press
Thank you so much to Little Tiger Press and Charlie Morris for my copy 💜