Viola has an impossible talent. Searching for meaning in her grief, she uses her photography to feel closer to her late father, taking solace from the skills he taught her – and to keep her distance from her husband. But her pictures seem to capture things invisible to the eye…
Henriette is a celebrated spirit medium, carrying nothing but her secrets with her as she travels the country. When she meets Viola, a powerful connection is sparked between them – but Victorian society is no place for reckless women.
Meanwhile, across the world, invisible threads join Viola and Henriette to another woman who lives in secrecy, hiding her dangerous act of rebellion in plain sight.
When Viola’s beloved father dies, she has little options as a woman in Victorian society so she accepts a proposal of marriage from her childhood friend, Jonah, who has just returned from India. Viola loves Jonah like a brother but she is prepared to learn to love him as a wife but Jonah won’t touch her and it is obvious he is hiding something from her. Viola decides Jonah just needs time to readjust to life in England and she hopes their move to Portsmouth will give them a fresh start but Jonah seems remoter than ever.
Missing her father terribly, Viola decides to pursue their shared love for photography but she is shocked when one of her photographs seems to reveal a spirit hovering over her subject. As word gets around, Viola suddenly finds herself with a stream of customers at her door, anxious to see the recently departed in their photographs. However, Viola just wants to see her father again but every self-portrait she takes fails and she can’t understand why it won’t work for her.
Viola’s fame soon brings her into contact with Henriette Blackthorne, a celebrated medium, who is more worldly wise than Viola and resorts to all sorts of tricks to fool people into believing she is talking to spirits. Henriette is fascinated by Viola’s ability and is intent on exploiting her but she finds herself drawn to Viola’s fragility. Viola confides in Henriette about the state of her marriage and starts to feel some attraction to the older woman. Henriette is shocked when she feels that attraction too as she thought she was done with love after the trauma she endured as a young woman.
As Viola and Henriette’s relationship develops, Jonah has also begun seeing Henriette in a professional capacity as he is desperate to reconnect with someone on a spiritual level so he can make amends. Jonah feels the least sympathetic of the characters due to his coldness towards Viola and we only have her word that he wasn’t always like that. Something painful happened to Jonah in India but his immense guilt keeps him from sharing it with anyone and it takes a long time for the truth to come out. While Jonah’s story does help us understand him better and does evoke some empathy, it is still very hard to like him.
All three characters have their own narratives which are woven together until the story reaches its conclusion, however newspaper articles and case notes are also presented so we know Viola and Henriette will eventually be immersed in scandal. Spirited is a beautifully written novel which examines the place women have in society and how they are treated when they dare to test the boundaries.