The year is 1888.
Life takes an abrupt turn for sixteen year old Scottish farmworker Jeannie Guthrie when she defends herself against the advances of her n’er-do-well cousin George. Convinced that George’s wound may prove fatal, Jeannie flees in panic to the anonymity of London. There she is befriended by the free-spirited Alexandra David, and introduced to Madame Helena Blavatsky’s famous salon. Drawn reluctantly into the world of the occult, and seemingly haunted by her cousin’s vengeful ghost, Jeannie must learn to control her dangerous power in order to survive.
The story follows Jeannie and Alexandra from the late Victorian world of spiritualists and theosophists; to the fin de siècle Paris of decadent artists, anarchists and esoteric cults; and finally to the perilous country of the Beyond.
Historical Note: Wild Talent: a novel of the supernatural imagines the meeting, in late Victorian London, of three extraordinary women. In 1888 and 1889 Madame Helena Blavatsky, head of the British Theosophist movement, known to her friends and many admirers as HPB, was living in London’s Holland Park. Fashionable and artistic London flocked to her Saturday afternoon salons.Also residing in London, as a student of oriental languages and religion, was twenty year old Alexandra David. In later life, as Alexandra David Neél, she was to become widely known for her travels in the Himalayas and her many books on Buddhist mysticism. Given Alexandra’s fascination with the occult, we can be fairly certain that she was familiar with Madame Blavatsky’s eccentric household at 17 Lansdowne Road. (Above right) The young Alexandra David
In her London journal of 1888 Alexandra mentions that she has engaged a young girl to help her practise speaking English. In Wild Talent this anonymous jeune fille is given a name -- Jeannie Guthrie – a history, and her own strange story to tell.
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George moved closer, and I broke out in a cold sweat. There was no way of escape, standing as he did between me and the door. At that moment I spied a pitchfork leaning against a post; and at the same instant he reached for me.
And then all at once there was blood, and George was clutching his shoulder, and cursing in a shrill, outraged voice. The pitchfork, that a moment before had been standing harmlessly against the wall, was now lying at his feet. One of the tines had struck by his shoulder, piercing shirt and flesh.
He clutched his shoulder and stared at the blood welling up between his fingers. "You've killed me," he said, and there was a kind of puzzlement as well as anguish in his look.
"I haven't," I cried. "I didn't." Something had happened, sure enough, and George without question was wounded; yet I felt it had naught to do with me.
"You're a witch," he said, and what I saw in his face now was hatred, and bewilderment, and naked fear.
They fetched George to the steward's cottage, and the steward's wife cleaned his wound and bound it up while they waited for the doctor to come from the village. If his wound should turn bad he may die, and then I will be a murderess, and must be taken away to prison, and will hang. Though perhaps -- and I pray it be so -- the wound is not a fatal one. Still, he named me a witch -- though I swear what I did was through no conscious intent, but a thing I could not control. They burned witches once; and not so very long ago they threw them in the water to see if they would float or drown. I think there are folk hereabout who still hold to such beliefs.
And after all his wound may be deep, and may fester, and he will die. And I will hang for it.
There is naught for it, but to run away.
WILD TALENT – THE LATE VICTORIAN AND THE SUPERNATURAL: a review by Mary E. Choo
Set in Great Britain and France in the late Victorian era, Eileen Kernaghan's current young adult novel is a compelling exploration of the nineteenth century obsession with the supernatural and the occult.
Displaced by family misfortune, sixteen-year-old Jeannie Guthrie is taken in by her uncle, and must earn a hard living as a farm labourer in rural Scotland. When she rejects the advances of her over-attentive cousin, George, injuring him seriously, Jeannie fears she has killed him, and dreading the Draconian punishment of the time, she decides to flee.
Jeannie finds her way to Victorian London, hoping to lose herself in the populous bustle of the city. She is fortunate in befriending the young Frenchwoman, Alexandra David, who introduces her to the salon of the famous Victorian spiritualist, Madame Helena Blavatsky. Jeannie finds employment there, and confirms, to her trepidation, that she has paranormal abilities of her own. Haunted by her experience with George and in constant fear of reprisal, she is forced from her surroundings by circumstance once more. Necessity draws Jeannie and her supernatural gifts into the darker byways of Victorian society, and from there to the heady environs of fin de siècle Paris, where events compel her to confront both her past and her considerable talent.
Kernaghan's eye for period detail and her realization of historic figures seem to get better with every novel, and she weaves a rich cultural tapestry throughout the book. Her portrayal of a young girl trying to make her way in an indifferent society resonates with the attitudes of the era. Jeannie's romantic interest, too, unfolds in keeping with Victorian custom, and her cross-cultural friendship with the sometimes volatile Alexandra plays out in ever-darkening counterpoint. The reader is drawn swiftly into this tale of misadventure and youthful resilience. That we follow Jeannie's exploits by way of her journal entries only adds to the narrative tension.
An absorbing read for any age, and beautifully done.
Review by Charlotte Taylor, Charlotte's Library
WILD TALENT: A review by Harriet Klausner
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