new historical novel
Wiltshire 1860: One year after Darwin's explosive publication of The
Origin of Species, sisters Anna and Beatrice Pentecost awaken to a world shattered by science,
radicalism and the stirrings of feminist rebellion; a world of charismatic religious movements,
Spiritualist séances, bitter loss and medical trauma.
Fetishist of working women Arthur Munby, irascible antiquary General Pitt Rivers,
feminist Barbara Bodichon and other historical figures of the Victorian epoch wander through the
backdrop of the novel, as Anna's anomalous love for Lore Ritter and her friendship with freethinking
and ambitious Miriam Sala carry her into areas of uncharted desire – while Beatrice, forced to
choose between her beloved Will Anwyl and the evangelist Christian Ritter, who marked her out as
a wife when she was only a child, is pulled between passion and duty.
Each is riven by inner contradictions, but who will survive when the sisters fall
into a fatal conflict?
'If the past is a foreign country, it is also one whose inhabitants are divided
from us by a common language. Stevie Davies's latest novel, her twelfth, is charged with sensitivity
to the otherness of the past ... Davies's subtle account of sisterly love, jealousy and betrayal is
the heart of this novel, and the best thing in it ... Davies never simplifies their relationship ...
Like Charlotte Bronte in Shirley, Davies is funny and perceptive ... and her social comedy breathes
life into an oppressive world. She is lyrical and pitiless in her dissection of religious zeal. Awakening
burns with anger against the abuses of the past, while recognising that the present has no right to
condescend. The past may be a foreign country, but we all come from it.'
Helen Dunmore, The Guardian,
Saturday 24th August 2013. Read the full review.
'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 and fanatics
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, Independent 25 October 2013. Read the
'This is where Davies inspires awe - in her ability to get deep inside the relationships between women, winkling out the deceptions of self and other, the concealed insecurities, the deep bonds that nurture and annihilate. It has been evident in her earlier novels, but here she transcends herself. Her compassion is enormous as she portrays her blemished characters and allows them the ability to change.'
Suzy Ceulan Hughes, New Welsh Review, Issue 102, Winter 2013
'A thought-provoking book that captures the era ... [Awakening] is populated by some
eccentrics and mavericks and is at times very funny ... but the underlying message is serious.'
Rees, Western Mail, 22 September 2013.
'If you are as interested, as I am, in the position of women in the mid-19th
century, then Awakenings is a must-read. It is full of human insight into the nature of insanity,
motherhood and bereavement but is also funny. It's one of those rare novels that the more you read,
the more you discover. George Eliot would be impressed.'
Sally Zigmond, Historical Novel Society
Review Issue 64, May 2013. Read
the full review.
'There are times when the reader will hate Beatrice in this novel, times indeed,
when you will feel that in Beatrice, Davies has created one of the great literary monsters. However,
because Davies is interested in the complexity of truth rather than historical falsification, there
are times when we feel deep sorrow and even affection for Beatrice, thus enabling the creation of an
extraordinarily well-realised character. Beatrice herself describes the technique Davies uses to achieve
this, as she reflects on her own perception of Anna's behaviour when their stepmother died in childbirth
(the baby dying soon after):
There are times when you see into a soul. Quite nakedly. The core of a person is revealed, terrible
as the pink, nude heart of a field mouse Dr Quarles exposed in vivisection.
It is Davies' own epiphanic realisation of this nakedness and
her knowledge of how to find it in her characters which marks out her quality as an artist (although,
no doubt she would not use that word ‘terrible'
as emotionally thwarted Beatrice tellingly does). It is also this realisation which serves as the driving
force behind the novel. Because this is what history rarely, if ever, shows: what it feels like to
be alive, and how events and actions can warp and diminish and expand and do all sorts of complicated
things to an individual's consciousness ...
Awakening, is a sad work but it is also a deeply moving and profound one. It is also a novel which
embodies its title; a title which, as well as reflecting the books setting, (the time of Darwin, the
beginnings of feminism, the time of variously oddball religious ‘awakenings'), also reflects this writer's
deep concern with personal awakenings. Indeed, much like that interview with Davies that I attended
earlier in the year, you leave these pages feeling more fully conscious of yourself and the world around
you than you did when you began them. What more can you ask for from a book?'
John Lavin, Wales Arts
Review, Issue 18. Read the full review.
'The sisters, Anwyl and Ritter, the four central characters, come alive on the page and Stevie Davies' mimetic portrait of a civilisation on the cusp of change is impressive. These people and their context are constructed out of finely woven prose that balances scene, summary and interior monologue with great skill. By the end of Awakening, the reader has been granted considerable insights into women in nineteenth-century Britain and the society that shaped them.'
Robert Graham, The Warwick Review, December 2013