Author Q&A:
Laura Purcell

The Whispering Muse

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Following the death of her mother and betrayal of her brother, Jenny becomes her impoverished family’s main breadwinner. Desperate for income, she takes a job at the Mercury Theatre dressing mysterious lead actor Lilith Erikson – and spying on her for the theatre’s wealthy owner. Soon, Jenny finds herself surrounded by a dark mythology she struggles to understand. The Whispering Muse is a Gothic tale of ambition, treachery and magic in Victorian London.

The novel is written in traditional prose but divided into five acts. Why did you choose this blending of forms for this particular story?
The Whispering Muse is set in a theatre and its events take place against the backdrop of five different productions. These plays became acts in the novel, echoing the traditional five act tragedies written by Shakespeare. Today it’s generally thought that every story, be it novel or screenplay, follows a classic three act structure, but in his book Into the Woods, John Yorke argues the case for a five act structure and I find myself using this approach instead.

Language plays a central role in the novel, from memorised lines to uttered pacts to the names people use. Is language a source of power accessible to everyone?
I wasn’t aware of this while writing the novel, but on reflection my character Jenny does come across language barriers as she finds her way in the world of the theatre. Her education hasn’t equipped her to understand the plays immediately. She also has to learn theatre slang and terminology to perform her job. My character Lilith Erikson, the actress, seems to wield words with power, but her head is filled with lines written by someone else. In this sense, her identity is largely erased by another’s language, and it gives her no agency at all.

Like Melpomene, Shakespeare is a popular muse and has inspired reams of writing about theatre – I’m thinking of M L Rio’s If We Were Villains, Whit Hertford’s DÓTTIR and the Inside No. 9 episode The Understudy, not to mention his own Hamlet. Do you have any favourite writing about the stage, and what drew you to the topic?
I’m not so much a fan of writing about the stage as an admirer of stagecraft itself. I’ve never had the poise or control necessary to be an actor, but I took theatre studies at both GCSE and A-level, which allowed me to explore ideas of set design, lighting, costume and direction. I developed a passion for the plays of Ibsen and Chekhov in particular. The action of The Whispering Muse takes place a little too early for these playwrights to be featured. I opted to focus on Shakespeare, firstly because I love his work, but also because I knew my readers would have some familiarity with the plots up front, and that saves a world of explanation in the text. Having said that, I did allow my favourite, more obscure revenge tragedy, The Duchess of Malfi by John Webster, to creep in.

Theatre has long sat at the cutting edge of horror – it was The Magic Lantern that created the now pervasive mythos of the translucent ghost, and Stephen Mallatratt’s adaptation of Susan Hill’s The Woman in Black is the West End’s second-longest running play. What do you think makes the stage such a suitable space for the Gothic?
So much of the Gothic is about duality, liminal spaces and things not being as they first appear. That feeds in perfectly to a world where people adopt personalities that are not their own, where scenery may look real but is false, where the action the audience experiences is not really taking place. The line between fact and fiction, almost between two worlds, becomes blurred. In terms of horror, I always feel theatre works best because it’s so immersive. You can’t pause the television; you can’t put the book in the freezer. That atmosphere of tension is all around you and you can’t escape!

You carefully tread the line between the real and the supernatural – there seem to be dark forces at play, but you always maintain a level of plausible deniability. Are the best Gothic novels the ones that keep their readers at least partly in the dark?
I think so. It’s one of the elements that attracts me to the genre. For example, in crime fiction all the motives have to be fully listed, each clue carefully explained and often everything is tied up with a neat bow. It’s undoubtedly satisfying, but life isn’t like that. We have to judge the evidence and decide for ourselves what we believe, particularly when it comes to the supernatural. I’m aware that some readers enjoy a creepy feel to a book but will not be satisfied with a ghostly resolution, as it goes against their own belief system. I prefer for my stories to have endings that are equally believable when looking at them through either a psychological or supernatural lens.

In Hamlet, only Hamlet himself, Banquo’s murderer, can see his ghost. Are Jenny’s ghostly visitations evidence that she is right to feel the guilt she does for the role she plays in the web of deceit at the Mercury?
As Jenny follows a strange apparition, she remembers the line from Macbeth, “Is this a dagger which I see before me?” She’s aware that she’s distraught and overworked, that it may be a figment of her imagination, but she’s coming to be more superstitious after her experiences at the theatre. It’s worth noting that at the time Macbeth gives this soliloquy, he hasn’t committed murder yet. The dagger is a temptation, seeming to herald his destiny, and I think the ghost performs the same service for Jenny. She claims she doesn’t want revenge, but the reader feels deep down that this is not quite true.

You often write about women on the margins of Victorian English society. What keeps you returning to telling their stories?
I started my career writing about royalty in the Georgian period, so perhaps I am finding some kind of balance by taking on less fortunate heroines now! But I think characters on the edge of society, caught between worlds and indeed classes, are ideal for Gothic stories. They inhabit their own liminal space. Their uncertainty, their lack of a place to belong, also makes them more open to manipulation by others. They are the kind of people who can be easily torn in two. As for the Victorian era, it was a time of immense change and new ideas, perfect for adding that sense of shifting impermanence that defines the genre.

Like many of Shakespeare’s heroines, two of your main female characters are motherless. Does this lack of maternal protection leave them particularly vulnerable?
I think being estranged from their parents gives Jenny and Lilith something to bond over and explains their self-reliance. There’s an added complication in that Jenny is nursing guilt for not being able to save her mother and is trying desperately to fill her shoes at home. Some of the key decisions Jenny makes are triggered by situations that remind her of her mother’s plight. Both women crave the support and unconditional love that a parent can give. Lilith may have turned out very differently if she did not have to seek these things through acting and sexual relationships instead.

Jenny becomes involved in the Mercury out of financial necessity. Is work under capitalism a Faustian bargain?
I don’t know about that, but Jenny’s unorthodox job is certainly meant to echo a Faustian pact. Her motives are much better than Doctor Faustus’s – she’s not looking for fame or fortune, simply trying to keep her family together. For a time, she even believes she might be helping another woman. But as she finds out more about her employer, she realises she’s put herself into the power of the wrong person. It’s a situation shared by other characters in the story, be it through employment or marriage contracts. No one is free from unpleasant obligations in this book.

Many Gothic novels end in flames and burning is a recurring theme in your novel. What does fire signify for you?
In The Whispering Muse fire represents the infernal regions, calling back to the early image of Doctor Faustus being dragged to hell. It’s something that tarnishes and leaves smuts. In this way, it symbolises guilt and unbreakable bonds, but perhaps also the burnout that follows a great act of creation. In Gothic fiction generally, fire is seen as a cleansing, retributive force. Jenny views the final fire of the story in this way. I’ll leave the reader to decide whether that’s true or whether it symbolises something more sinister after all.

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