Bloomsbury streets and library shelves inspire mesmerising tale

PUBLISHED: 15:36 27 April 2007 | UPDATED: 14:31 07 September 2010

by BRIDGET GALTON THE streets of Bloomsbury and the marvellous shelves of the British Library have inspired Barbara Ewing s latest historical novel. The Mesmerist is the gripping tale of a washed-up actress who sets herself up as a Lady Phreno-Mesmerist in 19th century

THE streets of Bloomsbury and the "marvellous" shelves of the British Library have inspired Barbara Ewing's latest historical novel.

The Mesmerist is the gripping tale of a washed-up actress who sets herself up as a "Lady Phreno-Mesmerist" in 19th century Bloomsbury.

Ewing, who has twin careers as an actress and novelist, paints an atmospheric picture of life on the boards - and among the byways of London - both drawn from personal experience.

"I have lived in Fitzrovia for 40 years," says the New Zealand-born writer. "I love living in central London because I can walk everywhere. I have this feeling for the streets of London and I think it's such a wonderful background to write about."

London itself is a major character in Ewing's novel. For her research, she studied old maps of the city and would walk in her character's footsteps, wandering into buildings to find out how long they had been there.

Her previous novel, Rosetta, was set around South Molton Street and Hanover Square, while The Mesmerist traces Cordelia Preston's life from her triumph on stage at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane, to her basement flat in Little Russell Street and childhood wanderings around Bloomsbury Square.

Ewing's research on mesmerism took her to the British Library in Euston where she found an old book on phrenology - reading character traits from parts of the head.

"I have read so much about mesmerism and I do believe it works. It's just a question of what it's used for," says Ewing, who compares it to current alternative therapies such as reiki and bio-energy healing where an inexplicable energy is passed from practitioner to patient.

"There were mesmerist hospitals and it was used as an anaesthetic in operations before the discovery of chloroform, and for the control of pain. Many doctors were furious and had stand-up fights with mesmerists.

"It was a huge part of the sensibilities of early 19th century Europe, there were lectures and books - Keats, Dickens and Coleridge were all interested in it."

Cordelia, who is the victim of a cruel trick played by the aristocratic father of her children and becomes the centre of a major murder inquiry, has a genuine gift for healing and taking away pain.

Ewing says she believes the energy transferred from one person to another can "unlock that 80 per cent of your brain that we don't yet understand".

"In a way, it was the forerunner of psychoanalysis - the idea that what happens in the head affects the body."

Ewing herself once had to act mesmerised, by Christopher Lee in the 1968 Hammer horror Dracula Has Risen From The Grave.

"He comes up to the big bosomed barmaid wearing red contact lenses and looks into my eyes and I let him suck all the blood out of me, turn into a vampire and become his servant!

"I still get letters from people asking for signed photos 40

years on."

But Ewing's acting career hasn't always been straightforward. She began writing when she grew disillusioned with the lot of older actresses cast aside while their male contemporaries continued to work. Her first novel The Actresses, written a decade ago, was a contemporary "bonkbuster" about a group of ageing actresses behaving badly.

"I wanted to write about what happens to middle-aged actresses, when you have played leads all your life and you find yourself playing the mother or the wife. You worry what you look like and about your 'playing age' and you see men of your age getting leads when you are not. Everyone always points to Helen Mirren and Judi Dench but they are the exceptions. I don't blame Glenda Jackson for giving up in her 50s to become an MP because she wouldn't sit and wait for the phone to ring."

Similarly she empathises with Cordelia, her mother Kitty, and friend Rillie, who turn their hands to mesmerism when the acting jobs run dry.

"I have supported myself all the time between acting jobs; as a maid, telephone operator or accountant. Cordelia and her mother do what they have to to survive, otherwise they would end up in the workhouse or dying down a corner of Drury Lane.

"Young pretty girls became actresses in the hope that a rich man would see them and set them up as a mistress - that is why very word actress had a double meaning."

Ewing came to the UK in 1965 to study at Rada but felt an outsider because of her accent.

She nevertheless scooped a gold medal for her acting and enjoyed a busy career, including a starring role in the cult TV series Brass. She points out that her two careers have similarities - both have cliques, rely on luck, who you know, and being in the right place at the right time.

"They fit together very well but it doesn't do to muddle them both - I have occasionally gone on stage when I have been writing all day and gone 'um'."

But she points out that her acting experience gives her a unique empathy with her 19th century characters.

"You must remember, I have worn the clothes. The corsets, hoop skirts, wigs and panniers. I have had to walk in those clothes and go to the toilet in those clothes. You learn a lot that comes in handy for historical detail."

The Mesmerist is published by Sphere, £18.99.

Bridget Galton

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