All wired up and sparky

ELECTRICITY by Victoria Glendinning, Hutchinson £14.99
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The Independent Culture
VICTORIA GLENDINNING's fine novel displays many of the qualities of her biographies, which in turn are often glowingly described as reading like novels. Electricity describes the coming-of-age of Charlotte, spirited, intelligent and educated beyond her social position. "Knock and it shall be opened unto you", Miss Paulina has taught her. But now in the mid-1880s she sees no future beyond a job in a haberdasher's, and no escape from the mean trappings of respectable poverty in a house where her parents exist "locked forever into petty routines and rivalries in a stuffiness of personal odours and unspoken discontents".

Charlotte has an eye for a metaphor. She looks at her mother and recalls a lost puppy, still jaunty, questing and absorbed; then she remembers its bewildered desolation as the alien world encloses it. She is ready to knock on almost any door. When her hand brushes the hand of the new lodger, Peter Fisher, electrical engineer, she feels the tingle of connection which will change her world. She loves Peter for himself but also for his metaphoric value, the world beyond the closed door, the intellectual excitement, the limitless glory of his obsession. "God is electricity. Electricity is God," he says.

The electrification of London has begun; at King's Cross the courting pair gaze up at the new platform lights: " `400,000 candle-power there,' breathed Peter." For Charlotte it is all romance and crusade. They marry and go to Hertfordshire, where Peter is to wire up Lord Godwin's huge country house. The affable but amorous Godwin is happy to open more doors for Charlotte. She discovers botany, geology and adultery, enduring them alike in a "calm and prosaic" spirit of inquiry. She sees Godwin and Peter as "two electrified rods and myself as a filament between them, binding them together and holding them apart". She believes she can control her life, loving Peter, in love with Godwin. Peter defines control as the task of civilisation, the setting of order on chaos, light upon darkness. But Charlotte has gone too far; she has lost control. With the illumination of the great house comes a series of hideous disasters; the leisure idyll darkens into tragedy. Back in London Charlotte tries to make a living as a medium, persuading herself that spiritualism, like electricity, is a medium of communication, a mirror image of science which seeks effect rather than cause. It doesn't work. Her own energy seeps away; she is short-circuited. The electric metaphor has run its course. Armed now by painful self- knowledge she confronts a life of self-determinism.

Charlotte is an attractive heroine, resourceful, witty and intelligent; despite her admiration for Peter's intellect she acts on instinct and survives. Peter's pure spirit and clarity of mind cannot preserve him from fatal human error. The fourth main character, Aunt Susannah, a robust Yorkshire widow, is the most vital of them all. She dispenses good sense, clad in jet-encrusted bombazine, or a hessian tent tied by a drawstring at the neck for modest moments. She has "such long growing and bushy eyebrows that she appeared to have hairy eyes". And, unlike the others, she does achieve control over her life.

But the great virtues of this novel lie beyond the plot and even the characters. The background becomes the foreground, crowding into the arguments over power, religion and science, choice and heredity. Clothing, rooms, furnishings, garden tools, bicycles, food and drink are minutely described. Glendinning's gift for lyric exactitude dazzles. Gas brackets are "fizzing blue fishtails of flame", flints become the "shoulder blades and knee joints of prehistoric animals". There is a vast trove of information on female education, gemstones, class distinctions, fungi, housework, hat- making, the treatment of women committed to mental asylums. A dead horse plugs a gaping pothole. Metaphors and images layer the narrative with a dreamlike texture, and there is a strange proliferation of the semi- globular, appearing as melon, brain, amethyst geode, pregnant stomach, crystal lightshade, apple or raspberry.

So much colour and sensuousness, such a feeling for time and place would be overwhelming if it were not balanced by Glendinning's spare limpid prose and economy of style. But rather in the manner of a Renaissance painting, the gaze is drawn away from the drama in the foreground to wander in the further landscape or linger on the incidental brightness of fruit or flower. Unless of course it can all be put down to the heroine's relish for facts; or perhaps, as her gnomic spiritualist mentor would say: "It's the same difference."