Windsor is undergoing a cultural revolution. No, not a purge of the borough’s bourgeois elements in a reign of revolutionary terror – quite the opposite, in fact. What we’re witnessing is an artistic and literary explosion, complete with festivals, exhibitions and book swaps.
And among those forging this great leap forward is Essie Fox, a Claremont Road resident whose latest fiction, The Goddess and the Thief – published last December by Orion – is set in the town’s grand Victorian past. In fact, her rising celebrity as a local author has made her a prominent agitator for all things literary and historic in Windsor and surrounds.
Arriving at her stunning Victorian home in the shadow of Holy Trinity Church, I am greeted by a shy, modest, impeccably neat woman – a Gothic damsel straight out of her vivid prose.
The house itself figures prominently in the novel and, as Essie leads the way to the cellar kitchen of the narrow terraced property, I can’t help clocking some of the features that crop up in my well-thumbed copy of the book.
“I love Windsor,” says Essie ardently, setting down mugs of milky tea. “There’s so much going on here – the arts centre, which is now The Firestation, the theatre. It’s getting better all the time. When I first moved to the town there wasn’t much happening, but in recent years there’s been much, much more. It’s becoming really vibrant.”
Fresh from an appearance at the Thames Valley History Festival and the launch of
The Goddess and the Thief at Windsor Guildhall, Essie has high hopes for this great cultural awakening.
“Windsor, Ascot and Eton could really make something of themselves in this respect, I think. And because it’s all a far smaller area than London, you are able to get to know everyone.
“When I decided to set this latest novel in Windsor, and started writing it, I wanted to be here all the time to immerse myself. Windsor is totally my home now.”
The Goddess and the Thief is an exotic and sensual tale of ‘theft, obsession and other worlds’. It’s the story of Alice, a young woman born in India and raised in England by her aunt, a spiritualist medium. When a mysterious stranger, Mr Tilsbury, enters their lives, the pair are lured into a plot to steal a sacred Indian diamond, the Kohinoor. Along the way they encounter the deposed Maharajah Duleep Singh and the widowed Queen Victoria. In the midst of the madness, Alice fights to reclaim control of her fate.
“All the time, this Maharajah Duleep Singh and this diamond were in the forefront of my mind,” says Essie, resting her hand on a heap of books employed in her research. The boy king, she explains, had been brought to Britain following the First Anglo-Sikh War.
“Duleep Singh was just like a ransom of war, and he could never go back – just as the British would never give back the diamond. It was India’s sovereign symbol, but now it had become a symbol of the Empire, of British greatness; of what we’d conquered and won.
“As Duleep grew older, he became more discontented and eventually did try to return to India,” continues Essie, betraying the depth of her research. “He wanted his diamond back because it was such a symbolic thing. There was a prophecy that if it ever returned to its homeland, all foreign invaders would be cast out.
“He called Queen Victoria Mrs Fagin, the handler of stolen goods, and eventually got involved with Russian and Irish dissidents. Once that became officially known, he was exiled to France, where he died in his early 50s.”
The story of our imperial misadventures has clearly made an impression on Essie.
“It has certainly made me look differently at our own past. I didn’t know much about that period before,” she admits. “It’s fascinating, but it’s made me realise that what we did was terrible. Our sense of entitlement. We killed thousands of Indians in our relentless search for control of that country. And it was all about wealth.”
Keen to draw out the character of the deposed Maharajah, Essie creates a parallel tale, weaving the two stories together to form a classic Victorian mystery.
“Alice, my main character, was also born in India. She echoes the Maharajah’s life, in that she’s a child, taken away from all that she knows and loves, and brought to another country. In a way she’s exiled too. She is a captive here; she’s lost everything she really loves, that ever belonged to her.
“So, in various ways, the fates of Alice and the Maharajah mirror each other. That was the inspiration.”
Essie came at novels later than she’d have liked.
“When I first decided to write, I’d been working for 20 years in art and design. My daughter had left home and I had one of those moments when you step back and think: ‘What am I doing with my life?’
“The answer was like seeing the wood from the trees. I’ve always loved reading, always been obsessed with literature, and I’ve always wanted to write.”
Her first book, The Somnambulist, proved an instant hit when it was chosen by Channel 4’s TV Book Club as one of the Best Reads of 2012. This was followed by Elijah’s Mermaid which, like its predecessor, was marked by dark motifs.
“The main unifying themes of the books are that they are all Victorian and they all have female narrators.
“They’re about smoke and mirrors and deception and family secrets and lies. There’s usually a twist and a secret, which is often to do with things in the family – classic in Victorian literature. They all look at the darker underbelly of the Victorian era.”
Essie’s affection for the period stems from her days as a literature student. But the supernatural also excites her curiosity.
“Lots of those Victorian sensational novels have ghosts – it was a big thing in that era. People really did believe in them. You had the coming of electricity, which was being harnessed for lighting, the telegraph and, later on, the telephone; all these almost magical things happening with science.
“For some people it was just one step further to breach the veil they used to image between life and death, so as to communicate with the spirits. It’s great to have all that spookiness.”
As though making up for lost time, Essie is already laying plans for her next novel, which takes a tentative step into the Edwardian and modern periods.
“It will be set in the 1970s, in tandem with a story from the early 1900s. It’s about a journalist who finds this old canister of film and sees an actress from 1911-12. He’ll discover that she’s still alive and living in this big house near Brighton. Eventually he will get to interview her and, through a series of objects, she’ll tell her tale.”
And what of Essie herself? Is there anything she wishes she’d done differently?
“If I could go back, I’d start writing much sooner. I’ve always made up stories, but never had the confidence to write them down. I wish I’d just had a go. There are so many books I want to write – I just hope I have the time to do it. That’s my only regret. Time.”
As Geoffrey Chaucer once penned: “The lyf so short, the craft so long to lerne.”