Category Archives: Georgian

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.

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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

Soot by Andrew Martin

Corsair | 2017 (6 July) | 352p | Review copy | Buy the book

Soot by Andrew MartinIt is November 1799 and York freezes under a blanket of snow. Life is especially grim for Fletcher Rigge, a gentleman who has fallen on hard times, who languishes in York’s debtor’s prison. An unexpected opportunity for release comes in the form of a proposition from a Captain Harvey. The Captain’s father, a painter of silhouette portraits or shades, has been murdered and Harvey is convinced that one of his last sitters was the one to do the deed. If Rigge can discover which it was within a month then the Captain will clear all of his debts. All Rigge has to go on is the outline of a face’s profile, a hat, a pet dog – this will be no easy task – but Rigge is a gifted and observant man. He is also on the verge of desperation.

It doesn’t take Rigge long to identify the shades’ six subjects – their shadows – and in their pursuit Rigge moves across York and further afield to London. His investigations take him into the assembly rooms of the fashionable, into literary circles, into the world of the theatre (in which an unpopular actor is lucky if the missiles lobbed at him miss), of gambling and seedy inns populated by prostitutes, thugs and spies. Much of what happens is told in Rigge’s own words via his journal entries, but we’re also given other viewpoints thanks to the letters and diaries of others involved in the case. Watching over it all are the lawyers, who seem more interested in Rigge’s own story than in the murder he’s investigating.

I adored Soot and the reasons for this are many. It’s a far more sophisticated plot than is first revealed and it is uncovered in an increasing number of layers. Plenty of perspectives are given and, as the novel proceeds, they change our opinion of almost everything. Nobody is safe. As time goes by, we learn that we’re not quite certain where we stand. Some of the ‘interpolations’ suggest that there is at least one perspective written with the benefit of hindsight. The lawyers make a brilliant contribution to the style of the novel as well as its plot. And because we can have two commentators interpreting one scene, we’re given intriguing insights. A character might think that his true nature is revealed, while another voice makes it clear that it isn’t. There is delicious irony at work here, which fits in so well with this late Georgian age of coffee houses, literary musings, hedonism and theatrical entertainments.

There are several thoroughly enjoyable character portraits in Soot – at first, they appear as shadows or shades but, as the pages go by, we learn much more than they would wish to give away. The most fascinating character for me, though, is Rigge himself. We know very little about him at the beginning and he doesn’t give much away but there is quite a journey ahead as his past and his beliefs become known. There is one moment in particular when I raged at him, and another that shocked me as Rigge truly surprised me, but I never stopped hoping for the best. It’s an incredible story, slowly built up with great skill by the author.

I loved the style of Soot with its multitude of voices, each individual and so evocative of the times. The language captures the spirit of the very late 18th century but it doesn’t labour it. It is never hard work to read. Instead, the narrative is light, witty and very clever, rich in social commentary, humour, irony and, now and again, sarcasm. At times they invite the reader in for intimacy while at other times they keep us at bay.

Soot does such a good job of bringing the Georgian world of York and London to life, with its fashions, pleasure-seeking, hypocrisy and sins. It’s a fascinating world in which morality occupies an uncomfortable space, as shown by the enigmatic, troubled and so likeable Fletcher Rigge.

The Body in the Ice by A.J. MacKenzie

Zaffre | 2017 (20 April) | 342p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Body in the Ice by AJ MacKenzieIt is Christmas Day in 1795 and this is one of the coldest winters that people can remember. But the villagers of St Mary in the Marsh in Kent will have more reason than most to remember this particular Christmas – a body is discovered, frozen into the ice of a horse pond belonging to New Hall, the deserted grand house on the edge of the village. It’s not, though, as deserted as it should have been. Two men were spotted arriving there a couple of days before but both have now vanished. Reverend Hardcastle, justice of the peace as well as rector, doesn’t delay in pursuing these men but it’s not long before he realises that there is more to the murder mystery than first appeared. And matters are compounded when New Hall’s owners arrive to reclaim their ancestral home, years after abandoning it for new lives in America.

This is a time of unease. Peace has finally been achieved with America after the Revolution and independence but Britain is at war with France and this vulnerable Kent coast feels the threat more than most. And so Hardcastle and his friend and neighbour Amelia Chaytor will receive little help from the preoccupied authorities for their investigations, especially after an obvious suspect makes himself known. But, as the winter continues to hold its grip, Hardcastle is convinced that all is not as it seems.

The Body in the Ice is the second Hardcastle and Chaytor historical mystery by A.J. MacKenzie but, I’m sorry to say, it’s my first. There are links to the first novel The Body on the Doorstep but that didn’t affect my enjoyment or understanding of The Body in the Ice at all. The story stands alone very well and I was gripped from its opening icey chapter, immediately falling for Amelia and the rector (and the dog, even the rector’s sister). But, if you do want to read The Body on the Doorstep, make sure you read that first.

I love historical murder mysteries, especially those that evoke strong feeling for the times in which they’re set, and The Body In the Ice does just that with the American Wars of Independence and the war with France playing their part. I hadn’t thought before about the impact of the American revolution on families in Britain, many of whom would have been divided, but this novel brings that to the fore. But there are other big themes here, such as the treatment of black men and women on both sides of the Atlantic during these days of slavery.

But apart from all the tension and drama of the murder mystery (which is excellent), there is humour, mostly at the expense of the rector’s poor sister, Cordelia. She is a gothic novelist (currently engaged in writing The Lighthouse of Vavassal) and not above providing generous writing advice to the sister of a new arrival in the village, Captain Edward Austen from Hampshire. But Cordelia complements Amelia perfectly and I enjoyed them both.

The Body in the Ice evokes a world of Georgian country villages that revolve around their church and manor house, with a dash of smuggling thrown in as this is the Kentish coast. It is richly atmospheric and wonderfully written, with just the right proportions of domestic and national politics, murder and polite conversation. The ending put me on the edge of my seat – there comes a time when manners have to be put to one side. I will most definitely be following this series from now on. I’m looking forward to The Body in the Boat very much.

A Death at Fountains Abbey by Antonia Hodgson

A Death at Fountains Abbey | Antonia Hodgson | 2016, Pb 2017 | Hodder & Stoughton | 356p | Review copy | Buy the book

A Death at Fountains Abbey by Antonia HodgsonTom Hawkins wants nothing more than to take a well-earned continental break with his ‘wife’ Kitty, leaving the pitfalls of London and their pornographic book business behind. George II’s Queen Caroline, though, has other plans for Tom and there’s not much he can do about it, considering that she knows more than enough about him and Kitty to see them hang at the end of a noose – again. Queen Caroline has received letters from ex-Treasurer Mr John Aislabie stating that his life is in danger and he is in need of protection. This is hardly surprising news. As the man responsible for the financial cataclysm that was the South Sea Bubble, half of England wants John Aislabie dead. The fact that the Queen sends Tom off to Aislabie’s estate in Yorkshire is a fair enough indication of how highly she values Aislabie’s life. At least it’s a break from London.

Tom and Kitty find a household in disorder. Aislabie’s past has come back from the dead to haunt him and there’s no way to know if this is connected to the death threats. It’s all an unwelcome diversion from Aislabie’s main passion (except for horses), which is to transform his estate in the latest style (for the late 1720s) and take over the next door property which has a rather pleasing ruin in its grounds – Fountains Abbey.

A Death at Fountains Abbey is the third adventure for Tom Hawkins and, like the others, it can be read as a stand alone, apart from a few light references to events from the previous novel, The Last Confession of Thomas Hawkins. Tom is attempting to turn over a new leaf a he makes a life with the irresistible and slightly dangerous Kitty and he’s probably pleased to leave his gambling and drinking haunts safely behind in London. But he can’t leave it all behind. Sam, the son of one of London’s chief gang captains, comes along as Tom’s ears and eyes. I can’t imagine one of these novels without Sam. I was so pleased he came along, although I don’t think he cared for the Yorkshire countryside very much.

The mystery at the heart of the novel is set against the grand background of a country estate that is in the process of reshaping itself according to the local fashion. Much of it is more or less a building site but there are still plenty of outdoor pursuits to enjoy (so long as not all the deer are slaughtered as gruesome warnings to Aislabie). London seems a long way away – reflecting Aislabie’s desires to leave his sins and disgrace behind. Tom finds himself in a world that is still feudal despite the spread of fashionable ideas and, although he is now far removed from the prisons of London, the penal system continues as a theme in A Death at Fountains Abbey.

Antonia Hodgson works her sources wonderfully (I loved the notes at the end of the book) and, as usual, sprinkles the story with real historical figures while creating a mystery that does them credit. Indeed, most of the characters here are historical, including Aislabie, right down to his cook, the builders and his troublesome tenants. Antonia Hodgson takes a few mentions of such figures from contemporary accounts and breathes life into them, making them every bit as three-dimensional as Tom, Kitty and Sam, who, as always, are fabulous companions – always entertaining, most definitely not entirely or even a little respectable, brave, persistent and attractive (bar the odd scar). Tom and Kitty’s relationship is not typical in the slightest but it’s a lot of fun to observe. As events here take place in a country estate there is an attempt at least to maintain a veneer of manners, particularly at the regular formal dinner, but this is clearly not even skin deep. Putting your foot in it every time you open your mouth is a trait that many of the characters in this novel have perfected.

I must confess that I did miss the London setting of the previous two novels. London was such a prominent character, as were the prisons. The stench and cruelty of the prisons and rookeries of London added a darkness and grim realism to the previous novels which is missing in A Death At Fountains Abbey. Fountains Abbey, despite the murder and mayhem, is a lighter story and the setting calmer. But Tom and Kitty deserve their respite after all that they’ve endured and, even though they manage to place themselves in as much peril as ever, there’s a strong sense that they’re enjoying the roles they’ve chosen to play. I love Antonia Hodgson’s slightly wicked sense of humour and it’s put to good use here and her clear affection for Tom and Kitty and Sam, as well as her enthusiasm for the period, is infectious. This is such a strong series and I hope it goes on and on.

Other review
The Last Confession of Thomas Hawkins

Mathew’s Tale by Quintin Jardine

Mathew’s Tale | Quintin Jardin | 2014 (Pb 2015) | Headline | 360p | Review copy | Buy the book

Mathew's Tale by Quentin JardineIn 1818, after seven long years, Mathew Jardine returns home from war to Lanarkshire in Scotland, a hero of the Battle of Waterloo. The cost has been great – one eye is gone, half his face scarred and another scar shows where a sword pierced his liver and almost claimed his life. In fact, Mathew returns home a ghost. His exhausted, well-meaning captain had believed the doctors when they said Mathew would die and so he wrote Mathew’s mother and betrothed a letter that would break their hearts. Mathew always loved Lizzie but returning home, believed a dead man, he finds her married to another man and near ready to give birth. But Mathew is a deeply principled, honourable man. Instead of turning against Lizzie’s husband David, he chooses to befriend him, slowly forming another of those close relationships that distinguishes Mathew’s life. But Mathew isn’t just a kind and reasonable man, he is also a warrior, a man who has killed, and it is that side of him that knows he can never forgive the Cleland twins, Gregor and Gavin, the local lords, for their behaviour towards his family and the men who work their land.

Mathew is an ‘Iron Baron’, one of the new businessmen who knows how to profit from the rise of the Industrial Revolution. He has the magic touch. He is soon a wealthy, influential and important man, living a life to rival, even surpass, that of the Cleland baronets. When tragedy strikes, Mathew has to choose between the sword or legal justice, always conscious of his responsibility towards others. But vengeance will be had, however long it takes, and it is that quest for vengeance that forms Mathew’s tale.

Mathew’s Tale is a thoroughly engaging novel with a central character in Mathew who is completely captivating. It starts quietly enough as we learn of Mathew’s war and journey home but the quality of the prose, which feels authentically early 19th-century and has such a skilled lightness about it, sucks the reader in and it becomes an addictive read. I really struggled to put this book down. I became completely caught up in this story of Mathew, Lizzie, David and Mathew’s mother. Each of the characters is fully rounded, their dialogue presented in varying degrees of Scottish dialect, and they are each surrounded by a host of other more minor, always fascinating, figures who make up this vividly-depicted historical world.

Quite apart from the plot, which is never less than engrossing, the book’s appeal lies in the masterly ease with which Quintin Jardine portrays the historical setting, the Scottish location and early 19th-century society and law. This is a fascinating time, with the old feudal ways co-existing with an emerging industrial society. Men such as Mathew can rise from a considerably lowly status – in the army as well as in life in general – and they can outshine the oldest families. Money takes on aristocratic lineage and new wealth can have a lot more clout than old. Of course, if you’re unfortunate enough to have neither new or old money, then you need to watch out. Life is as cruel as ever for the poor. Mathew bridges old and new and, as a result, his tale is as much about the times as it is about the murder case. Both are gripping and wonderfully done.

Mathew’s Tale is full of colour, immersing the reader in a bygone age with deceptive ease. It is such a pleasure to read, its moral and social lessons never getting in the way of a fine story. Quintin Jardin has written a great many novels over the years – mostly modern crime fiction – and I’m sorry to admit that this is my first. This isn’t a period of history I’m naturally drawn to but once I started I did not want to stop. Mathew is a fabulous creation but there is more to Mathew’s Tale than just its leading figure. This is a highly accomplished, sensitive novel, enriched by great storytelling, characterisation and historical setting and mood. I absolutely loved it.