The events of Angelica revolve around the title character, the young daughter of Constance and Joseph Barton. The truth of Angelica’s situation is confused by the novel’s narrative structure, which divides the telling of the tale into four different perspectives, each one convinced of its own veracity. The uncertain truth-claims of each narrative provide the delayed full disclosure essential for a suspenseful mystery-thriller; but Arthur Phillips’s skillful division of the story into four narratives also allows the reader occasion for a more thoughtful psychological investigation into character and motive.
The first section of the novel is narrated by Constance Barton. She is viewed as having “jumped the counter” by marrying one of the customers of the stationery shop where she worked as a clerk, but this social triumph has paled in the wake of two dangerous miscarriages and an increasingly distant relationship with her husband. She has managed to carry a third pregnancy to term, resulting in her daughter Angelica, but her doctor has told her that further pregnancies will likely terminate her life. Since Angelica’s birth, Constance has avoided any sexual relations with her husband and has become unusually anxious about the health and welfare of her only child. When Joseph banishes Angelica from the foot of their bed to her own room, Constance experiences both the anxiety of separation from Angelica and the anxiety involved in her expectation that Joseph will want to resume sexual activity that could easily result in a life-threatening pregnancy. When Joseph does indeed make advances, Constance’s overwhelming fear of resuming sexual relations as well as an obsessive maternal anxiety drives her to her daughter’s room, where she seems to witness a horrible demonic presence hovering over her sleeping daughter. Terrified of both her husband and the strange shape hovering over Angelica, a shape that at times seems to resemble Joseph, Constance begins to spend her nights watching over her daughter, sleeping in a nearby chair. With her fears made more intense by the ghost stories she reads at night, Constance begins to conclude that she and Angelica share a psychic space that is such that Angelica undergoes all of the sexual anxieties of her mother and that her mother’s fears may have also been incarnated in diabolical phenomena that are jeopardizing her daughter’s safety. This means that Joseph’s sexual demands on his wife are also somehow being visited on his daughter.
In addition to her concern for Angelica, Constance finds her husband increasingly repellent; her revulsion is compounded by her visit to his medical laboratory, which leads her to conclude that his research is little more than license to torture helpless animals. Angelica herself becomes increasingly disturbed, possibly responding to her mother’s intensifying hysteria and apprehension, or possibly responding to the presence of a supernal demon. Seeing her mistress on the verge of a complete breakdown, the housekeeper Nora recommends a spiritualist, Anne Montague.
The second section of the novel turns to Anne’s perspective. Her skills as a former actress and her need to earn a living as a medium may be factors in her agreeing that Constance is the victim of some malign spiritual manifestation. Privately concluding that the locus of the family’s difficulties is not so much a predatory ghost but Joseph himself, Anne counsels Constance to use various herbal remedies and other tactics to sedate her husband. She also suggests ways in which Constance can cleanse the room of its evil spirit, a procedure that results in a comedy of errors that rouses an infuriated Joseph out of his slumber to douse a small fire that Constance has set.
Although a specialist in the occult, Anne at the same time introduces a psychological perspective. While she understands that she must continue to suggest a supernatural presence if she is to justify her employment as a spiritualist, Anne in fact works to protect Constance from Joseph’s own dark side. For Anne, the demon is a kind of convenient fiction that allows both husband and wife to be in denial about Joseph’s appetites and potential for violence. Anne ends by consulting an old friend from the theater, an actor who specialized in playing the minor role of the Third Murderer in William Shakespeare’s Macbeth, with a view to arrange the elimination of Joseph, thereby rescuing both Constance and Angelica from what she has concluded are...
(The entire section is 1843 words.)