Sleep, Pale Sister


Henry Chester, a domineering and puritanical Victorian Artist, is in search of the perfect model. In nine year old Effie he finds her.

Ten years later, lovely, childlike and sedated, Effie seems the ideal wife. But something inside her is about to awaken. Drawn by her lover, Mose, into a dangerous underworld of intrigue and blackmail, she meets Fanny Miller, the brothel-keeper, and her shadowy daughter, Marta – murdered ten years ago on the day of Henry’s weekly visit…

And as a friendship becomes possession and Henry’s secret past is revealed, Effie and Marta plan their revenge together.

Sleep, Pale Sister is a powerful, atmospheric and blackly gothic evocation of Victorian artistic life.


This was my second novel, published the same year my daughter was born. My original publishers didn’t like it much because they had been expecting another vampire novel, but I was far happier with this story than with The Evil Seed. What made me less happy was that my new publishers had decided to market it as “horror” – in fact it was a kind of Gothic ghost story set in Victorian London against a backdrop of brothels, sewers and artists’ studios, and I still think it deserved better. Most importantly, it was through Pale Sister that I met my friend Christopher Fowler, who found me an agent, kept me going through some tough and depressing times, and still continues to do so. What’s more, he’s a terrific writer, and I wish my stories were half as good as his.

About the book

Henry Chester is an artist in the late 19th century, specializing in sentimental paintings of young girls. At the same time fascinated and repelled by female sensuality, he has spent much of his career searching for the Perfect Woman – one who embodies his conflicting ideals of innocence, passivity and sexual availability. In Effie, a life model only nine years old, he finally believes he has found her. As soon as she is old enough, Henry marries Effie, having moulded and educated her to suit his purposes, but the infatuated young woman soon realizes that the man she has married is not the loving father-figure she imagined him to be. Repressed and infantilized by her husband, increasingly dependent on the laudanum he gives her for her “nerves” and desperate for affection, Effie becomes involved with the cheerily amoral Mose Harper, and enters an illicit affair with him which leads her into a dangerous underworld of prostitution, revenge, deceit and murder. Who is Fanny Miller, the brass-tongued madame? Why does she seem so familiar? Who is Marta, her dark daughter, lost years ago and yet still somehow present in the shadows of her silken rooms? And when does friendship end and possession begin?

I owe a great deal of Pale Sister to Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White, as well as to the story of John Ruskin and Rose la Touche, and the lives and works of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. I collected a vast amount of authentic (and mostly unsavoury) detail from a book called The Other Victorians, as well as Walter – My Secret Life. I was delighted to be able to use Thomas Cooper Gotch’s troubling and beautiful painting ‘The Child Enthroned’ as the cover (although my first choice was Graham Ovenden’s equally troubling and beautiful ‘Girl in Shadows’). Although I had already used the two-strand past-present narrative in The Evil Seed, in Pale Sister I evolved the multiple-first-person narrator technique which I later used in Chocolat, and which still remains my favourite.

Content warning: drugs; depiction of mental illness; spousal abuse; implied rape of a minor


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