As charged as the expectations of those clamoring for communication with the spirits of the dead as enlightened New Yorkers embrace the American Spiritualist Movement, Noyes fills the pages of her novel with the nebulous yearnings of young women whose lives are shaped by men, whose choices are defined by society’s strict codes of behavior.
Of the two principle characters, Clara Gill and Maggie Fox, we first learn the tragic fate of Clara’s tenuous attempts at romance with an unsuitable man. Under the careful auspices of her father and “uncle,” Clara spends her days illustrating species in the London Tower, the live animal collection soon to be farmed out to other, more prestigious venues as wealthy men engage in enthusiastic domination of the natural world.
“Allowed” the freedom to indulge in her art, Clara does the unthinkable: forms an impossible and outrageous attachment with a sympathetic zookeeper. For all the rapture of her virginal imagination, this relationship will end in tragedy and scandal and shape the primly contained years of Clara’s life as a spinster. It is only through her encounter in America with temporary maid and blooming spiritualist Maggie Fox that Clara will at last be tempted to rejoin the world, if only to exist in its shadows. Maggie is one of the infamous Fox sisters, whose “rapping” communication with the spirits of the dead create a phenomenon late 19th-century New York, embraced by those desperate to “speak” with their lost loved ones.
As Noyes delivers her readers from Clara’s claustrophobic rooms to Maggie’s career as a spiritual muse, the sisters poked and prodded by skeptics and critics, she captures the raw energy of the era, the egomaniacal posturing, the doubters, the believers, the power of the Fox sisters before captive audiences. The prose is exceptional, as exquisite as nature’s vast canvas, the emotional terrain of female limitations brightened with imagination born of frustration. This is a world created by an absence of choice, both Clara and Maggie’s opportunities so tightly wound as to suffocate lesser personalities. What might have become of such women born in a later generation?
For all the beauty of Noyes’s prose (the Widow Bray’s “tidy wisdom”; Clara’s admission, “It hurts to be seen”; Clara and Will’s “world in little”), these stories are tragic - love denied, the death of a lover, a lost reputation, Clara’s inability to live in the world, and Maggie’s bold reach for more than her allotment, only to be left, like Clara, with a “world in little.” Brilliant and searing, Noyes’s Captivity has captured the essence of the female dilemma in the late 1880s for those chronically unable to bow to convention.
Like Alice down the rabbit hole, I willingly followed Clara’s lead, then Maggie’s, absorbing their strange world of limited expectations and unspoken ambition, diminished and at the mercy of men. This is an extraordinary, revelatory novel.