‘I didn’t just choose to write about Annabel because of her diary, though her personal story is certainly sensational…’ She heard her voice waver and took another deep breath, forcing herself to continue. ‘I wanted to do something bigger. I wanted to acknowledge the debt that we owe Annabel Burley and all her brave Victorian contemporaries at the London School of Medicine for Women. These women had to fight for their calling in a way that few of us today can possibly comprehend…’
Celebrated television historian, Professor Olivia Sweetman, has just published her first non-academic book, Annabel. It tells the story of Lady Annabel Burley, who Atkins makes one of the first women to graduate from medical school and become a house surgeon. According to Annabel’s diary, which Olivia sees for the first time on a day out, she also murdered her husband and confessed in writing, a secret that’s been kept for decades.
Olivia is introduced to the diary by Vivian Tester, a recluse and the housekeeper at Ilford Manor, owned by the Burley family and where the murder took place. Vivian is instrumental in helping Olivia with her research but by the time The Night Visitor begins, the relationship’s turned sour.
Vivian’s presence in her life is not Olivia’s only problem: there’s an issue in her marriage – a secret that her husband, David, has been keeping from her; David and their eldest son, Dominic are barely speaking, and her agent wants her to accept an offer from the BBC to dance on prime-time TV (the words Strictly Come Dancing must be subject to copyright as the title of the programme is never actually stated).
Atkins moves the story between the points of view of Vivian, in first person, and Olivia, in third person subjective. Vivian appears to be the archetypal lonely spinster who’s latched on to a glamourous, successful woman. She goes as far as to follow Olivia to the village in the South of France where her family are on holiday, pursuing Olivia in an attempt to convince her to work on a second book together. But, of course, Vivian has secrets of her own.
Olivia’s problems seem to stem from her success. Here Atkins successfully exploits society’s views of, and problems with, successful women. David is also a non-fiction writer but is struggling with his second book:
Things had become difficult between them, she knew, when she’d started Annabel. She was just too busy and stressed all the time and he was consumed by his writer’s block, his stalling career. Perhaps he also felt threatened that suddenly she was the one writing. Perhaps, deep down, David was afraid that her book might be as successful as his once was.
When Carol, Olivia’s agent, tries to persuade her to do Strictly because of the impact it will have on her sales and the offers that will follow, the narrator tells us:
What Carol didn’t understand was that, apart from anything else, she’d lose all academic credibility if she accepted the BBC offer…At a recent conference she’d overheard an Oxford history professor, an older woman who she’d always looked up to, saying, ‘Oh, Olivia Sweetman, the telly-don? I’ve got no time for eye-candy TV academics. She isn’t a serious historian.’ She’d wanted to take this woman aside and remind her that she’d spent twenty-five years in serious academia, that she’d published two well-regarded, complex and highly academic books and that there was nothing wrong with inspiring the general public.
Atkins delivers the obligatory twists and turns, some shocking, some more heavily foreshadowed, but all delivered with a pace and timing which keeps you turning the pages.
In The Night Visitor, the combination of historical research, an unbalanced female friendship and a marriage in peril drive the narrative to a revelation that has the power to destroy careers. It’s a compelling look at how intelligent women are treated.
Thanks to Quercus for the review copy.