Ohm, sweet ohm

ELECTRICITY Victoria Glendinning Hutchinson £14.99
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The Independent Culture
Victoria Glendinning's novel is set in the 1880s and combines beautiful precision of detail with a comparatively portentous use of theme and symbol. It is narrated in the first person by Charlotte Mortimer who, at the start of the story, lives with her parents in shabby-genteel Dunn Street. The atmosphere chez Mortimer is as deadening as the family name suggests (in this book most people's names seem to mean something, even if it's hard to know exactly what). It is only with the arrival of a new lodger, the Biblical-sounding Peter Fisher, that Charlotte is sparked into life.

Peter is a disciple of the new technology, an electrical engineer for whom science has become a religion, and who hopes to convert the world with his fiat lux. Whether he holds the keys to Charlotte's heaven is more doubtful, but mutual attraction is followed by marriage and eventually the pair leave Dunn Street: Peter has found employment in the service of an aristocrat, Lord Godwin, whose country house he is to wire for electric light.

Godwin, it turns out, is something of a Mr Rochester. More an archetype, perhaps, than an individual, he does what one would expect of the traditional romantic nobleman and falls for his social inferior, Charlotte, who is drawn into an affair. Her alienation from Peter is at its most apparent on New Year's Eve: she, like Cinderella, is a guest at Godwin's party, while her husband is at work behind the scenes to make sure the new lights come on as planned on the stroke of midnight.

It is soon after this that the novel reaches its climactic point in a scene as grisly as anything out of a Grimm fairytale or Jane Campion's film, The Piano. While chopping wood, Charlotte drops an axe, slicing off the toes of one foot, an episode which is almost immediately followed by a second narrative shock: Peter's accidental death by electrocution. The mutilated foot has all the resonance of some symbolic rite of passage and invites an over-determined Freudian sort of interpretation: paradoxically, it is only after maiming herself with her husband's tool that Charlotte is able to stand, as it were, on her own two feet. Rejected by Godwin, whom she had hoped to marry, she returns to London to embark on a career as a spiritualist, holding seances in a rented room until she is finally unmasked as a fraud.

The narrative is driven throughout as much by ideas and extended metaphors as it is by plot. The central theme is that of "unseen forces". Electricity itself is one of these, and it becomes a metaphor for the others: sexual energy and the "spirit world" (in reality the unconscious desires of her clients) tapped into by the medium. Is one to be controlled by these forces or to be in control of them? Sometimes they are dangerous: sexual appetite, as personified by the mad- doctor (or mad doctor) called in to treat Charlotte for depression, is quite terrifying. As the novel progresses, though, it seems to open out into a parable of female self-determination: the very fact that Charlotte, as narrator, is writing her own history shows that she is no longer dictated to by others.

Glendinning's heightened use of theme and metaphor is in fact much less compelling than her feel for the physical details of everyday life. Her biography of Trollope was wonderfully rich in this respect - who could forget her digression on the ghastliness of Victorian false teeth? - and here, too, she reveals a sense of the past so tangible at times that you can smell it, taste it, see it and feel it. Unlike the Victorianism of Peter Ackroyd or A S Byatt, Glendinning's sense of the past is not about literary allusion or pastiche. It is about bust-improvers, dreadful two- part gowns in puce and lime, ostrich feathers on the mantelpiece, food, furniture and outdoor privies. Ironically, some of her most arresting descriptions are of the demands of housework in a world without electricity.