The Quickening is above all a novel of mood. It has a pleasing quality of intriguing familiarity that brings other writers and their works to mind while at the same time setting out its own unique ambiance. As an old-fashioned atmospheric ghost story, the author’s style suggests that of a young Wilkie Collins or a less-ornate Edgar Allan Poe. The feel and theme of the story inevitably bring to mind Henry James’ classic, “The Turn of the Screw.” The isolated house and flat marshy landscape of the setting remind one of William Hope Hodgson’s The House on the Borderland, although Biella’s story is pure horror without the science-fiction elements introduced to such tales by Hodgson. The intelligent cosy conversations between Fairweather and the local medic, Doctor Devonald, echo similar talks between those in charge in the upper-class adventure novels of John Buchan. The creepy spiritualist, Mrs. Marchant, with her dramatic séance (one of the novel’s most powerful scenes) recalls the supernatural thrillers of Charles Williams. In short, The Quickening rests comfortably among the works of some of the English language’s most entertaining writers.
Lawrence Fairweather, a typical gentleman of the late 19th century, narrates the yarn and Biella does an excellent job of catching the formal and slightly florid prose style of the times. Like so many characters in more-traditional English novels, Fairweather does not seem to have a job and is, in fact, an unambitious gentleman botanist of leisure.
Beneath the skilfully maintained mood, this is also a psychological novel. We see the thoughts and feelings of the rather conventional Fairweather as he narrates the story, and watch through his steadfastly rational eyes as a strange “presence” in the gloomy country house erodes his wife Julia’s sanity. The home’s sole servant, a superstitious conspiratorial housekeeper, only worsens the dreary situation. “‘I have faith in impressions, ma’am. There’s often something in them, though I don’t know why or how … Mr Fairweather would think us as superstitious as savages, if he could hear us!” And all the while, little Hazel, the couple’s disturbed and increasingly neglected child suffers in fearful silence.
The interplay among the characters is both interesting and revealing. The stolidly sensible Fairweather, who rationalizes every uncanny incident, contrasts with the slightly eccentric Dr. Devonald who, although he professes to be a man of reason admits, “… I’m afraid that we men of science are not always as rational as we’d have the world believe.” He is as good as his word, naively and irresponsibly allowing Julia an excess of drugs. “As for your wife – well, the chloral is more of a benefit than a peril, I assure you. She’s been taking it for months with no ill effects; she told me so herself. She has taken laudanum in the past, at my direction.”
Yet even he mocks the foolish romanticism of his sister Sophie, telling Fairweather that, “She has a taste for the old and the ruinous, and is adamant that the electric light will drive every last ounce of romance from the world.” Sophie brings her friend, the exotic spiritualist, Adelaide Marchant, onto the scene and the already fraught situation begins to unravel. We have the fateful séance: “Mrs Marchant dropped into her chair and spread her hands over the table in the manner of a stage conjurer. Her eyes swept across our assembled faces, and her features lost their cast of slight amusement and became sombre.”
Julia Fairweather is weak and visibly unstable, swiftly falling victim to the more forceful personalities around her as she seeks to embrace – at any cost – what she believes is the ghost of a lost child. Sophie and the sinister Marchant reveal their unfeeling recklessness as these stronger women pursue their own impulses at the wounded Julia’s obvious expense.
For those who enjoy period ghost stories that generate a sustained atmosphere or mood, The Quickening is a feast. The contrast between Fairweather’s sober rational worldview and that of the irrational people with whom he must deal is illuminating. Julia’s plight is saddening. While the ending is not completely unexpected, the novel builds towards it with an inexorable sense of foreboding and despair.