This Booker Long Listed novel by D. J. Taylor is an example of the work of a novelist who is at the top of his game. I’ve not read him before, but this one (his 1oth) should put him into serious contention for the Mann Booker prize for 2011. He’s previously won The Whitbread prize for biography in 2003 for his work on George Orwell.
As a “Victorian Mystery’, the novel works on several levels. The relationship between men and women and woman’s place in Victorian society is drawn with an incisive eye. There can be no doubt as to the limitations placed on women in Victorian England, and the limited ways for women to gain a modicum of independence back then – as odious as some of those methods may have been. As a mystery, there is nary a flaw to be noted: intricately and interestingly plotted, it never loses its way. The mystery unfolds at a pace that is leisurely but keeps the reader attuned all the way. Right up to the very end. How many mysteries can say that?
The novel begins with a couple of race track touts (and drunks) discussing horses and racing. These characters show up periodically throughout the novel. But soon we are introduced to the Gresham household: the widowed Mr. Gresham and his daughter Rebecca. Rebecca is wooed and won by a Mr. Happerton, whom Rebecca’s father doesn’t particularly like, but assents to the marriage since his daughter seems not to have been impressed any of the other suitors that have crossed paths with the Gresham household. Next we get to know the Devanant clan. Since Mr Devanant owns a well regarded horse (Tiberius), and Mr Happerton is a “horseman” (here, one who gambles on horses), the plot thickens. Happerton and Devanant are at opposite ends of the spectrum: Happerton, devious and remarkably adept at positioning himself to get what he wants; Devanant, weak and in debt, vulnerable. One can tell where this is going. But getting there is the fun of it all.
The women characters are even more interesting. Annie Ellington, the good-hearted governess to Devanant’s (autistic?) child Evie. Annie is a Victorian woman who seems to go with the flow, accepting what the world has minimally to offer her and expect no more. Rebecca Gresham expects to have to work for what she gets, and to get what she wants through passive aggressiveness. Rebecca Happerton nee Gresham is one of the most remarkable, enigmatic (to us and to her husband) and smoldering (there’s a lot beneath the surface) characters I’ve read in quite awhile. The run-up to the Derby is the main plot arc, but it is a framing device only. The real plot(s) come in regards to the schemes and devious plots to make money off the derby by manipulating the odds and making the big score. A sub-plot of this is an excellent jewelry heist caper that is to help finance the larger scheme. There’s a lot here to like.
The narrative is told in several voices, including letters, running commentary from journalist’s and excerpted articles from racing pieces in the broadsheets of the day. But the story is primarily told as in this example:
There is one person whose part in this narrative we have sadly neglected. How is Mrs Rebecca Happerton, and how has she been getting along? Mrs Rebecca was very well, slept soundly in her bed, had a healthy appetite and despite the responsibilities and cares of the married state was still looking out for her opportunities.
Oh, was she ever.
When her father (they have never particularly communicated well) at one points asks how she likes being married, she replies
‘How do I like being married? It is the same as any other state, I suppose. One sits here, and people come to see one – that is, they don’t come – and because one is a woman nothing is explained to one and life goes on quite mysteriously as if it were all sealed up in a black box, and – in a few years we shall all be dead.’
Not acceptable to Rebecca though. And of course, in great part this is the story of Rebecca insinuating herself into her own destiny, taking charge of the drifting vessel that is Victorian Woman. She’s cold, reserved, restrained, but one can’t help but admire her purposeful reckoning.
There are also tasty little excerpts that lead off each chapter from what purport to be from writers of the day, mostly women’s advice and comportment suggestions (A New Etiquette: Mrs Carmody’s Book of Genteel Behaviour (1861), The Young Lady’s Infallible Guide and Companion (1867)). But there are also selections from Thackeray and advice to men as well (nostly of the sporting variety).
A delicious ending. The last two words of the novel (this gives nothing away – were “she laughed”). And I laughed at exactly the same time that I read those words. I sometimes laugh when I reach the end of a good, a very good novel – and this was one of those times.