Anovel about Nonconformist religion in the middle of the 19th century may not sound like one to pop in the beach bag. But Stevie Davies's twelfth novel is a wholly absorbing exploration of the world of two Baptist sisters in Wiltshire; their complex and shifting relationship, both with each other and the times in which they live.
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Awakening is set in 1860, the year after Darwin's Origin of Species, and centres on Anna and Beatrice, the Pentecost sisters (a surname that could seem too appropriate until we discover in an afterword that it was the name of the author's great aunt) who are survivors of their minister father's first marriage (he would marry again, twice). It is with Papa's third wife, Lore, that Anna is drawn into what is clearly a lesbian relationship ending with Lore's death, before the novel begins. Her solicitous sister struggles to keep the house intact and befitting her father's memory.
Davies has clearly done her homework but there is no trace of the clunky stovepipe-hat-and-zeal properties of the pastiche Victorian novel. Although certain real personages like Philip Gosse, Arthur Munby and the charismatic preacher Charles Spurgeon walk across the stage, there is no attempt to kit them out in cartoon dress. Davies's quiet, delicate, supple prose creates an utterly believable picture of the inner life of the two women.
Anna is initially valetudinarian, wayward, difficult, scandalously drawn to the godless humanist novelist, Miriam Sala, who writes under a male pseudonym and lives in an unmarried relationship. Beatrice is the keeper of her father's pure religious flame but she too has turbulent feelings, condemned to marry Lore's German cousin, Christian Ritter, who has groomed her unctuously since childhood. In reality she is in love with the more appealing Welsh preacher, Will Anwyl. Failing to secure her he marries Anna – who blooms.
Davies weaves this intricate web of faltering, painful relationships with great skill and writes very powerfully and movingly about the subtle half-tones and tentativeness of love, of childbirth, of loss as well as the horribly intrusive shock of male Victorian medical practice towards women.
The wider context of scientific revolution and religious revival – the Awakening of the title – is explored with dry humour rather than outright mockery. The child preachers, spiritualists andfanatics need only the gentlest of prods to provide their own satire; but at the heart of this book is the life of Anna and Beatrice, which Davies has brought to life with unobtrusive mastery.
Nicholas Murray's books include 'A Life of Matthew Arnold'