We all hear stories growing up that make us prick up our ears with curiosity. The spooky house at the end of the street or the disappearance of some much loved neighbour decades ago. These are local urban legends that in our adult life we start to question the truth behind. In The Golden Key, Marian Womack the chilling atmosphere of these childhood fears to combine them with fairy tales and a murder mystery.
Set in the 1901 shortly after the death of Queen Victoria some of the best bits of this novel are the elements of Victoriana that surround the characters. In the story Womack recreates the world of spiritualism. This is something I loved about The Golden Key. As the characters witnessed moments of the supernatural in performance I was enthralled. The séances feel wonderfully eerie. As the characters peered in to the darkness I felt my eyes rushing along the lines on the page in the hope of seeing some sort of gruesome phantasmagoria.
The characters were true to the period. Through them Womack wove themes that gave the world a weight of reality that balanced out the more fantastical elements. The two main female characters, Helena and Eliza battled to be taken seriously because of the restrictions of their sex. They embodied the suffragette spirit that bobs just out of sight on the historical horizon.
Sam Moncrieff lives in a different social sphere to the women. He lives with his godfather, Charles Bale who seems to spend all his time in conversation about what he see as modern ideas. As much as I loved that Womack explored spiritualism in her story, she also gives Charles a contemporary who he sees as a colleague that is a committed vegetarian. Another movement that was popular in the Victorian era.
As you would expect the interaction of these characters in this novel as they solve the mystery that runs through the book causes the reader to be reminded that the woman in this story are at a social disadvantage. Although the women are the ones who demonstrate intelligence and skill, the men constantly question the worth of the Helena and Eliza’s findings in favour of their own assumptions. With this in mind it seem very much to me as if Womack has written a feminist novel.
Throughout the novel there are little Victorian literary references that glimmer at the reader. There is a talk of a Hungarian Count that has something of the wolf about him. As his presence is felt on the fringes of the narrative Womack conjures the scent of Bram Stoker’s Dracula. There are parts of this novel that have a taste of the children literature of the Victorian era. I felt at times that I could feel the presence of the childhood classics of The Water-babies and The Secret Garden. Professor Dodgson is even mentioned. However, with the help of the ghostly children and a few ominous appearances from pretty Victorian dolls Womack manages to make these childhood wonders feel more than a little creepy.
The Golden Key by Marian Womack is for fans of Victorian classics and historical novels like those written by Sarah Waters and Hilary Mantel. It is also something for those maybe looking for a feminist themed Sherlock or Maple like mystery.