Category Archives: Georgian

The Dressmaker of Draper’s Lane by Liz Trenow

Pan | 2019 (21 February) | 352p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Dressmaker of Draper's Lane by Liz TrenowMiss Charlotte is admired by many. She runs her own successful costumier business and dresses some of the grandest ladies in society. Not many women in London during the 1760s live such independent lives. But Charlotte’s life has not been an easy one. She was abandoned as an infant, given away to the Foundling Hospital, which, because the roll of the dice (or the coloured balls) fell in her favour, cared for her and gave her an education. Life didn’t get any easier when she left their care but Charlotte was saved when her elder sister, Louisa, found her and gave Charlotte the family and security she needed. But when Charlotte buys pieces of silk in an auction, she finds a small scrap that stirs within her memories that remain just out of reach. She knows it means something and she will not rest until she discovers what that is.

The Dressmaker of Draper’s Lane is a novel that enchanted me. It takes us back to a world that has always fascinated me ever since I read of the Foundling Museum in London where you can see the tokens that distraught mothers left with their abandoned babies so that they might one day identify them and reclaim them. This so seldom happened. You can feel their pain and Liz Trenow brings that alive in this wonderful novel.

The dressmaking business is an aside. It gives Charlotte her independence to investigate the mystery that obsesses her, although, having said that, the vagaries of business, especially for a woman, are made clear here. Survival is so difficult. Destitution seems such a small step away. We also see the hardship that women suffer who have husbands they depend upon who are not worthy of them. Charlotte is spared that but she is well aware of the power that men can have over a woman. It’s a theme that runs through the novel and it is compelling.

We also see the other dangers that could face women – the peril of childbirth, the fear of losing a child to disease, their financial dependency on men. Charlotte wants to live a safe, independent life, but she is well aware of these dangers, she sees their impact on her sister and beloved nephew. She has experienced them herself. She also has women working for her. She feels responsible for them.

And yet, despite all of these concerns and fears, which form the heart of the novel, Charlotte is driven to discover the mystery of her past. I was enthralled by it and couldn’t wait to discover the truth. I loved the novel’s historical setting and its descriptions of the clothing that gives Charlotte her independence. The Dressmaker of Draper’s Lane might be a gentle and relatively light read but there’s a power to it, as well as some disturbing moments. It contains a serious message – about the fragility of life in 18th-century England, especially for children and women in labour, and the misery of women who had no choice but to give their babies up to the Foundling Hospital, and this is well worth reading about, especially when it’s done as well as it is here.

The Dressmaker of Draper’s Lane follows on from The Silk Weaver, which focused on Charlotte’s friend Anna, but it stands alone perfectly.

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Blood and Sugar by Laura Shepherd-Robinson

Mantle | 2019 (24 January) | 448p | Review copy | Buy the book

It is 1781 and an unidentified man is discovered hanging upon a hook at Deptford Dock, tortured and branded with a slaver’s mark. Captain Harry Corden, a war hero now embarking on a political career, suspects that he knows who the man is. His close friend, the abolitionist Tad Archer, has disappeared having just revealed that he was about to announce something that would end British slavery for good. But there are many who would do anything to stop that happening – the rich who’ve made their fortunes from the cruel trade and the crews and merchants of docks such as Deptford who think they could not manage without it. And, in their minds, why should they? Surely the slaves are less evolved, in need of religious salvation, something that would be provided for them as they lay in packed lines in the stinking depths of hundreds of vessels sailing the oceans.

As Harry investigates, he becomes as immersed as Tad ever was in the dark side of Deptford’s brutal business. It’s not long before he too is receiving threatening notes, soon more murders follow, almost everyone that he meets has more than one side to them, as some secrets emerge while others remain truly concealed. Harry has good cause to dread that this appalling trade in human life may well be the death of him.

Blood & Sugar is, without doubt, one of the very best books I read in 2018 and is most certainly one to watch in 2019. The fact that it is a debut novel makes it all the more astonishing. It is a sophisticated tale, written with such confidence by an author who has clearly immersed herself in a period that she understands very well indeed. And she brings it to life, especially that little bit of 18th-century England that is Deptford, to the east of London, where slavery is everyone’s business.

Deptford lies at the heart of Blood & Sugar and it’s so well depicted that you can almost smell its stench. One half of the town is gentrified, living off the profits of the poorer half who labour in ships, in docks, in inns and brothels, in warehouses. Everything has a value, whether it’s information, a bed to sleep in, a whore, a spice, a ship, a wife, a slave. It’s all interconnected and woe betide anyone who stirs the pot. I loved the descriptions of Deptford, of the journeys to and fro from London, of life in the inns.

The characters we encounter are every bit as fascinating as the place in which they live. Freed slaves live among their previous owners, while there are others in Deptford who will never be free. They are exotic objects. Is it even possible to murder a slave? Their masters act without fear of prosecution. Miss Cinnamon is someone we grow to care for deeply as her story comes to represent the trade that enslaved her. There are so many stories here as Harry blunders his way around the town. I loved Harry. He’s so difficult not to like. His character brings with it the background of the American War of Independence and that adds another intriguing element to the novel’s setting. The narrative is in Harry’s own words and so he’s careful what he reveals to us about himself and others. But he trusts us more as his story progresses. I hung on to every word.

No punches are pulled here when it comes to the slave trade. The cruelty and inhumanity is laid bare and some sections, with which the author has taken so much care, are upsetting to read but they are also powerfully informative. Harry is playing a dangerous game, as are some of the other people we meet, but it’s clearly one that’s worth it. There is a heavy cost but Harry knows it must be paid.

Blood & Sugar is a compelling novel. The murder mystery is such a good one. The book is action-packed and as page turning as you could wish for. This is such a hard novel to put down! The characters are richly varied and deeply interesting, including a complex, driven main character who I felt such an attachment to. It is wonderfully written. It is also a stark, honest, devastating depiction of slavery in Britain – this isn’t a book to forget in a hurry. With Blood & Sugar Laura Shepherd-Robinson has laid down the gauntlet – she is most definitely an author to watch.

Wrecker by Noel O’Reilly

HQ | 2018 (12 July) | 305p | Review copy | Buy the book

Wrecker by Noel O'ReillyPorthmorvoren is a small village tucked away into the coast of western Cornwall. It’s so remote that the villagers don’t use its name. Instead they call it ‘Hereabouts’ and most of them will never leave it. In these early years of the 1800s life is hard in this poor village. Even God has abandoned it. The chapel lies ruined, its minister ran off long ago. People make money how they can and the biggest bounty comes from the sea in the form of countless ships wrecked on the rocks. The villagers are Wreckers, raiding the broken vessels, stripping the wretched remains of the ships’ lost souls. Mary Blight is no different and one night she lives to regret how she robbed a dead lady of her fine boots.

Events are set in motion, continuing with Mary’s brave rescue of a half-drowned man tied to barrels and adrift in the rough sea. His name is Gideon Stone and he is a Methodist minister from Newlyn. Mary’s methods of healing are horrifying to Gideon – and to the delicate reader – and so the minister decides he must save the people of Porthmorvoren and he will begin with Mary Blight. And then the rumours, the whispers and the plots begin to brew…

Wrecker is a beautifully written and hugely atmospheric tale of life in this impoverished village, which seems cut off from the world around it. The only way out is on foot or by boat and few take to the sea lightly. Wreckers know better than anyone how perilous the sea often is. People fear it; women are barred from it. The superstitions of the villagers run deep and they are viewed by outsiders as Godless creatures. This is such wonderfully moody storytelling. You can almost smell the salt of the sea, feel its spray. There are hints of a dialect in their speech (but not enough to make the story difficult to read). Village life is fed by jealousy, rumour, drink and deprivation.

The relationship between men and women is particularly well observed. The men live hard lives but most of the women suffer even more and usually at the hands of their men. Religion, too, is scrutinised and it’s found wanting. Mary Blight must learn that she can depend on nobody but herself and it’s a difficult lesson. She sees glimpses of other lives and possibilities of a different kind of future but this is no fairy tale. Mary is such a strong character, in direct contrast to Gideon Stone.

One thing about the novel that did surprise me is that it has very little wrecking in it and this was a bit of a disappointment, particularly considering how the book begins. But, once I accepted this, I found myself hooked by what is a pleasingly slow-moving, atmospheric tale of a beautiful place at a time when that beauty was overshadowed by the dark danger of its coast and the brutality of life on its shores. Talking of beauty, though, what a stunning hardback this is!

The Body in the Boat by A.J. MacKenzie

Zaffre | 2018 (ebook: 5 April; Pb: 15 November) | 396p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Body in the Boat by AJ MacKenzie

It is the 1790s and the war between England and France has had little effect on the men and women of both coasts whose smuggling ventures thrive. Goods and gold regularly cross the channel, with ships passing in the mists, navigating by the full moon. The Kent coast is particularly active and one night smuggler Yorkshire Tom (otherwise known as Constable Joshua Stemp) observes a coffin being loaded onto a rowing boat from a ship. Meanwhile, a glamorous party is being held at the grand Magpie Court to celebrate the birthday of Cecilia Munro, whose husband, Hector Munro, is a well-known banker in Kent’s most prevalent bank.

Reverend Marcus Hardcastle, a justice of the peace, is at the party with his widowed sister, the celebrated Gothic novelist Calpurnia Vane, and as he leaves he accidentally overhears a secret and snatched conversation between Mr Munro and his wife’s father. Hector Munro it seems is about to undergo a perilous journey and there is nothing that his wife or father-in-law can do to stop him. When Hector’s body is found murdered in a boat just a few days later, Hardcastle feels compelled to search out the truth, aided by his neighbour and friend, the widowed and wise Amelia Chaytor.

The Body in the Boat is the third Hardcastle and Chaytor mystery by A.J. MacKenzie, a series that does such a fine job of bringing Georgian Kent to life, with its long stretches of beach and picturesque villages. I love the descriptions of country life, the journeys made my horse, gig or boat, and the dependence of villagers on one another. It’s a close knit community but it can also be a dangerous place (the Miss Marple syndrome) and nothing stirs up the blood quite like greed. Smuggling is rife – everybody’s either at it or turning a blind eye. But there’s a gentlemanly character to it, until people start getting murdered. It’s also rather intriguing to realise that this Kentish community lived in fear of a French army landing on its coast. This could very well have happened.

This novel also takes a look at the banking world, which I found both fascinating and perplexing. I loved the idea of watching people come to terms with bank notes instead of pieces of gold. The necessity of being able to trust a bank is central to the system and that is displayed to such good effect here, as is the utter reliance of small investors in their bank. And so, while we see some people at their worst, this is also the chance for the good to draw together. There are other moments in this novel, too, when Hardcastle, Mrs Chaytor, and even Calpurnia demonstrate such caring and selfless behaviour, although they are left vulnerable to hurt. Mrs Chaytor suffers so much here. I love both Hardcastle and Mrs Chaytor but Mrs Chaytor I feel particularly warm to.

There are some intriguing female characters here. They certainly stand up for themselves, even if society would just have them as the chattels of husbands, fathers or sons. Smuggling is a free enterprise for men and women. Nobody goes by their real name. It’s a leveller. It’s also rather dangerous. And exciting.

I really enjoyed The Body in the Boat. There is a comfort in reading a historical mystery such as this, with such wonderful settings and characters. But I also like to think that I’m learning something and I certainly do with these books. I think my only issue is that early on I had trouble keeping up with the number of characters and it took a while for each to become distinct for me but, otherwise, I hung on to every word and thoroughly enjoyed myself. I do like this series and I’m most certainly looking forward to the next adventure for the Reverend and the splendid Mrs Chaytor. I’m also in danger of warming considerably to Calpurnia.

Other review
The Body in the Ice

The Wicked Cometh by Laura Carlin

Hodder & Stoughton | 2018 (1 February) | 352p | Review copy | Buy the book

It is 1831 and children and young adults are disappearing from London’s darkest streets. The poor are not easy to miss when so many are homeless and cholera plagues the city’s streets and houses. But enough have been missed to make the broadsheets and it concerns young Hester White. Hester was born to a comfortable life but tragedy means that now she lives among London’s poorest, relying on the charity of her family’s former servants. She dreams of escaping her nightmare, to be somewhere warm and clean, but also to help those that society has forsaken. It seems that she has a chance of all this when, in what might appear at first to be an unfortunate circumstance, Hester is run down by a carriage. Injured, she is taken away by the carriage owner to recover in his grand country house of Waterford Hall and there she becomes companion and servant to her rescuer’s sister Rebekah Brocks.

Rebekah and Hester are immediately drawn together for so many reasons but also for their social conscience. They find themselves investigating the missing people, taking their search into the hell streets of darkest London. The threads they follow become twisted and corrupt as lies follow their every step. The cost of trust can be deadly.

The Wicked Cometh is a rich and velvety exploration of late Georgian London at its worst. The contrast with Waterford Hall throws even more shadow on London’s slums. The stench, dirt and disease of these streets and dwellings (it wouldn’t be right to call some of these places houses or homes) is vividly described as Hester moves through this abhorrent world. For many, gin is the only escape until the final release of death through poverty, disease or murderous intent.

The scenes at Waterford Hall are entirely different. There we find ourselves in a Gothic mansion, with fire-lit rooms and evenings spent by the piano. But the mood there is never less than sinister and Rebekah is increasingly enigmatic. Hester is every bit as out of her depth at Waterford Hall as she is in London.

The novel really tells two tales. There is the mystery of the missing youngsters and then there is the relationship between Hester and Rebekah. The latter is lovingly told, all experienced through Hester’s eyes. There is some beautiful prose here as Hester tries to understand her feelings while she fears for her place in the house and, more generally, in the world. Hester is a young woman in limbo trying to find her role, while Rebekah must remain a mystery. We’re given extracts from Rebekah’s diary and that seems to confuse Hester even further. I was really drawn to Hester, even though there were times when I wanted to give her a good shake.

The Wicked Cometh is a melodramatic and Gothic tale and especially so as the novel continues. I must admit to preferring the first half of the book. I loved the realism of the chapters in London, Hester’s isolation there, the people that she comes across, all trying to make any ends meet. London is so well described. The second half of the novel felt rather fanciful to me and parts of the plot were too contrived for me to accept. There are coincidences and there are also surprises which I felt lessened the impact of other parts of the novel. I also had some issues with the ending. I suspect that the ending may divide readers.

All in all I found The Wicked Cometh to be an entertaining read that I would recommend. There are sections of it that really stand out and those chapters are indeed as purple velvety and luscious as the beautiful proof (surely the most beautiful I’ve seen) that I was fortunate to be sent to read. I suspect that in future novels the author will keep her plot better on track, avoiding the melodrama, but my overriding feeling for the novel is warmth for its wonderful and sympathetic characterisation and for its damning and insightful portrait of late Georgian London at its most dark.

The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock by Imogen Hermes Gowar

Harvill Secker | 2018 (25 January) | 488p | Review copy | Buy the book

It is 1785 and merchant Jonah Hancock has to cope with the news that one of his captains has just sold his ship in exchange for what appears to be a little mermaid. It’s dead, hardly attractive, but when news of it flies around London society, Mr Hancock realises that here is the chance to recoup his losses. And when Mrs Chappell, the ‘abbess’ of a fashionable ‘nunnery’, gives him a great deal of money to display his mermaid at her infamous parties for a week, Mr Hancock not only has his eyes opened, he also gets a little more than he bargained for.

Angelica Neal is quite possibly London’s most beautiful courtesan and she is newly unleashed on London once more (now that her Duke has died, conveniently in time for the season). Mrs Neal must look to her future and that means she must marry. That’s easier said and done for one in her position. Mrs Chappell is keen for Angelica to return to her nunnery but Angelica has grander plans. She also wants a mermaid of her own, and not some dead ugly little thing on the mantelpiece. And Mr Hancock will do everything in his power to give Angelica her wish.

This remarkable debut brings Georgian London alive, or at least those parts of it that make their living, or take their pleasure, in its fashionable ‘nunneries’ or brothels. Its is gorgeously written, filled with all those little luxurious details about such things as clothing, furnishings, objects – from stockings and stays to chairs, wallpaper, gardens and grottoes. Everything is so vibrant and rich. And the wit with which the inhabitants of these spectacular dresses and parlours speak is delightful.

What is especially appealing is the distance between the assumed elegance and refinement of Mrs Chappell’s brothel and the reality of what actually goes on within its perfumed rooms. The girls are all taught manners, languages, needlework and music, as if they are all in training to be perfect ladies of society. And yet these are girls who are owned, who rarely meet other women apart from themselves. They exist in a beautiful bubble for the enjoyment of men. At times this is brought home, particularly in the character of Polly, who, as a black young woman, is an exotic object of curiosity and lust, little more than that. Little different are the black footmen with their powdered hair. There is a dark side to this world, fed upon by hypocritical, lecherous men, controlled by pandering painted grotesque women and permitted by corrupt officials. There is suffering.

Angelica Neal is such a fascinating character. At times she may seem shallow and grasping, but how could she be anything else? Her story demonstrates just how vulnerable women like this can be, while a friend demonstrates how far a few, but just a few, can rise. There is a goal but not many at all can achieve it. I felt such empathy for Angelica, such warmth. Her character evolves through the novel and it’s shown so beautifully by Imogen Hermes Gowar.

Polly is somebody I would have liked to have seen much more of. She is brilliantly drawn and her story has such potential. I could easily read a novel just about Polly, if written as well as this. As for Mr Hancock, he is rather overshadowed by the novel’s astonishing women, but there is something so poignant about his belief that somewhere, in a parallel universe maybe, still lives his son who was born dead. He imagines the boy growing to manhood near him, like a shadow, by his side. Mrs Chappell is a glorious scene stealer. I loved the descriptions of her. She is truly revolting, with her cauliflower flesh, feeding on her girls.

This is historical fiction but, as you might expect in a novel with mermaids, there is a fantasy element but it is delicately done. The final third of the book takes us further into strangeness than the rest and I must admit that I preferred the preceding two thirds, but there is a real beauty about what happens. We can be in no doubt, though, that the true mermaids are the human sirens who move through this novel, bewitching men and being betrayed by men. Angelica Neal is the subject of The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock and she is enchanting, as is this whole marvellous, witty and elegant novel. Do not miss it. The hardback is itself a thing of great beauty.

Beautiful Star and Other Stories by Andrew Swanston

The Dome Press | 2018 (11 January) | 253p | Review copy | Buy the book

Beautiful Star by Andrew SwanstonEach of these seven stories has at its heart a real historical character, bringing to life a historical event that affected the lives of everyone who remembered it. Real people, as well as fictional characters, inhabit these tales of extraordinary circumstances and the result is moving and powerful. The collection is also most elegantly written, as you’d expect from Andrew Swanston, and at times the emotion is almost understated as people have to deal with what has happened. No drama is made of it. Life must continue.

The seven stories are mostly drawn from the 17th-19th centuries with the notable exception of ‘The Flying Monk’, which competes for the title of my favourite of the collection. Set in the early years of the 11th century we meet the young monk Eilmer who is determined to prove that a human can fly, once he is able to build his wings. Everyone who meets Eilmer and watches his experiments is inspired by him.

Two other stories take us to sea. In ‘Beautiful Star’, the longest story in the anthology, we find ourselves on the coast of Scotland in 1875. A community is stricken by a devastating storm that catches its fishing fleet at sea. But, as with the other stories, Andrew Swanston doesn’t just show us the impact of the main event, he leads up to it by building up the layers of ordinary but remarkable lives. As a result, their destiny is felt to be even more real and devastating. I carry in my head the image of the wives and daughters carrying their husbands and brothers on their backs to the boats. Superstition forbade men from getting their feet wet ahead of their voyage.

In ‘HMS Association’ we meet Daniel Jones, a man pressed into the navy in 1708 and who must endure war against France as they besiege the town of Toulon. This story might be short but it’s certainly sweet. I would have liked much, much more of this.

Other stories also carry us to war, including ‘The Button Seller and the Drummer Boy’ which goes back to the battle of Waterloo and tells the tale from the perspective of both English and French sides. ‘The Castle’ goes back to an earlier war, the English Civil War, and presents the astonishing story of Lady Mary Bankes, a mother of twelve children, who led the Royalist defence of Corfe Castle in 1645 after the death of her husband. This is incredible and makes me want to revisit Corfe as soon as possible.

In ‘The Tree’ we have another story from the period of the English Civil War, or just after it, as the victorious Parliamentarian forces hunt for the vanquished King Charles II across the land in 1651 following his defeat in Wales. Charles famously hid in an oak tree and that’s the story we’re presented with here and I loved it. This is another of those short but sweet tales.

In ‘A Witch and A Bitch’ we have something a little different. It presents the story of Jane Wenham who was famously tried for witchcraft in 1712. Known as the Witch of Walkern, the troubles of her life are here laid bare, as well as the maliciousness of her accusers, and the kindness of her granddaughter. It’s a moving story and tells us much about attitudes to witchcraft among ordinary men and women, as well as courts and officials, at a time that recoiled from the witch trials of the 17th century.

I loved this collection. It is elegant and full of heart. If I had to have a least favourite it would be ‘The Button Seller and the Drummer Boy’ but that is simply because it draws on a historical period that does little for me, so the fault is mine entirely. But I adored the other six stories and took something from each of them. They also inspired me to find out more about the events that they portray. I haven’t been a big reader of short stories in the past but I do read and appreciate them much more now. And it’s all because of collections like these.

Other reviews and features

The King’s Return

Guest post by Andrew Swanton: Spies and spying in the Civil War

Incendium