Category Archives: Victorian

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

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Victoria and Albert: A Royal Love Affair by Daisy Goodwin and Sara Sheridan

HarperCollins | 2017 (21 September) | 303p | Bought copy | Buy the book

Victoria and Albert by Daisy Goodwin and Sara SheridanLast Sunday the second series of the ITV historical drama Victoria finished and I was left bereft. So when I saw the handsome companion volume in the shops yesterday I snapped it up and it’s fair to say that I’ve spent much of last night and today completely immersed in it. Not just because it brought back all those lovely feelings you get when watching a drama series that you love but also because it made me do my homework. I know a little bit about Queen Victoria but Victoria and Albert presented me with so much that I wanted to learn more about. And so I did get distracted. In the best of ways. Looking up original photos, old paintings, contemporary accounts, Victorian recipes, exhibition catalogues, dress illustrations, political tracts and so much more. Victoria and Albert: A Royal Love Affair felt like a beautiful, glamorous gateway.

Daisy Goodwin, of course, is the author behind the screenplay of the TV series and in the book she gets the chance to explain exactly where she veered from historical fact. The series does this quite a bit and so I appreciated the chance to see the events of the series and its people put in their true context and order. The book doesn’t delve too deeply. It isn’t that kind of book. It’s more of a general guide to the people and themes of the series, presented in short, beautifully-presented and fully-illustrated sections, accompanied by quotes from contemporary sources, such as Victoria and Albert’s letters and journals, and snippets from the TV series.

So we’re given short sections on such things as travel, the churching ceremony after childbirth, corsets, sex, Ira Aldridge (the African-American actor), inventions, Ada Lovelace, the Corn Laws, the Irish Famine, pets, royal nicknames, and so much more, as well as sections on each of the key figures who feature in the drama. There are also regular panels which go behind the scenes of the series, looking at makeup, costume, food, child actors and so on. All lavishly accompanied by illustrations – photos from the series as well as contemporary photographs, paintings and newspaper pages. There is so much to look at!

The book focuses on 1840-1846, the years covered by series 2 of Victoria. It does merely touch on some of its themes – you can hardly adequately cover such topics as the Irish Famine in a page – but it certainly does enough to spark further interest and investigation. There were some subjects I would have liked the book to tackle more, particularly the royal children and the household servants. I would have loved to have known more about the butler, for instance.

If you enjoyed the Victoria series, then I think you might well like this stunning hardback. It doesn’t replace detailed studies of Victoria’s early reign but it most definitely illuminates some of the period’s themes for the more general reader. I’ve now ordered the other companion volume, The Victoria Letters by Helen Rappaport, and will be looking at biographies. I’m hooked. This book has also re-awoken in me an interest in historical non-fiction which I thought I’d put to bed some time ago. It turns out I was wrong. Thank heavens.

The Silent Companions by Laura Purcell

Raven Books | 2017 (5 October) | 364p | Review copy | Buy the book

It is 1865 and Elsie Bainbridge carries the cares of the world on her shoulders. Married just months before, her husband Robert has died and she has little choice but to head to his crumbling country estate, The Bridge, where she will give birth to their child. The villagers are hostile and the servants are suspicious and unfriendly. Fortunately, Elsie has her husband’s cousin Sarah for company. They will come to rely on each other very much in the lonely months ahead. But perhaps they are not as alone as they might think.

When Elsie sets about getting to know her new home, she and Sarah come across a locked garret. Inside they find a diary dating from the 1630s and a wooden figure that looks disturbingly familiar. It is, she learns, a Silent Companion. Soon Elsie’s nights are disturbed by strange sounds. The servants insist there’s a nest of rats hiding in the walls. Elsie isn’t so sure – it sounds like wood being worked, being moved.

Interspersed throughout this wonderfully creepy, superbly Gothic novel are extracts from the diary which take us back in time to 1635 when Anne Bainbridge was mistress of the house. At that time everyone was hugely excited because King Charles I and his Queen were intending to spend a night at The Bridge. Everything was going so well…

I love haunted house stories and The Silent Companions was a book I couldn’t wait to read. I’d been told that it was genuinely frightening and so I settled down to read it late one evening. In fact, I only read this book at night. This isn’t a book for commutes and lunchtime reads – it deserves to be read by lamplight, when every sound seems louder in the quiet night. It’s a hugely atmospheric read. The Bridge is a fine example of a rickety, old and unloved Gothic mansion. It creeks. Its wood feels alive. And in its midst are Elsie and Sarah. We fear for them.

The sections from the 1630s are every bit as engrossing as the Victorian chapters. And the characters are just as intriguing, if not more so. Told in Anne’s own words, during these sections we are immersed in the past and it’s a dangerous and fearful place indeed.

I had two very late nights with The Silent Companions. I didn’t want to put it down and I couldn’t wait to pick it up again. It certainly gave me the heebie jeebies and made my spine shiver. I love that feeling! It’s dark, tragic and, at times, deliciously scary, but it never goes overboard. The emphasis here is on Elsie and Anne and what this house, so claustrophobic and dark, does to them, two centuries apart. It’s quite a tale, full of Gothic wonders. I must also say that the hardback is gorgeous inside and out.

The Zealot’s Bones by D.M. Mark

Mulholland Books | 2017 (21 September) | 247p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Zealot's Bones by DM MarkIt is 1849 and Canadian Diligence Matheson has arrived in Hull to search for the bones of the apostle Simon the Zealot, believed to have been buried somewhere in Lincolnshire following his execution by the Romans in their fort at Caistor. With Matheson as bodyguard and companion is Meshach Stone, a former soldier who is tortured by his experiences of war in Afghanistan. Both men find themselves in another hell on Earth. The city of Hull is gripped by an outbreak of cholera that is wiping out almost whole families and streets, leaving behind the wails and torment of the bereft. Stone has hopes of finding redemption in Hull but instead he finds dead the woman he so wanted to love. There are so many dead but this woman’s death was not through cholera – she was murdered. And she is not the only one. Driven almost mad by his need for vengeance, Stone must hunt down the murderer in a city where Death roams freely and hell awaits around every dark corner.

David Mark is familiar to many as the author of the McAvoy contemporary police detective series but in The Zealot’s Bones he picks up the reins of a historical murder mystery for the first time – and I am so glad he did. The Zealot’s Bones is nothing short of brilliant and is one of the finest historical novels I’ve had the pleasure of reading this year.

The writing is superb. This is a dark, gruesome and twisted tale and through it walk the damned and the afflicted. And David Mark brings both the locations and characters to life with the most gorgeously vivid prose. The dialogue is wonderful and often extremely witty as we know well that what a character says need not be at all what he or she means. This is an age of manners and etiquette and sometimes not even murder is allowed to interfere with that. When one memorably odious character meets Matheson and Stone, he utters ‘I… extend the hand of welcome, even if I would rather chew it off’ and this sums up the hypocrisy of this impoverished, plague-ridden and cruel Victorian world. It also made me chuckle.

Stone is a fabulous creation. In many ways he believes that he is as evil as the monster he hunts and his body is as scarred as he believes his soul must also be. We’re taken deep into his troubled mind and it isn’t always a gentle place to be but there is a kindness about Stone, a willingness to change his life, that makes his experiences here all the more painful and meaningful to read about. His relationship with the rather lovely and charming Diligence Matheson is tender and enjoyable. I loved Diligence’s quest for the Zealot’s bones. He’s so easily distracted but he too has something to prove.

There are some fantastic characters in The Zealot’s Bones, whether they’re good or evil. The ratcatcher is quite a scene stealer and there are other intriguing men and women who make brief but colourful cameos. The murders are horrendous, their victims utterly pitiful and the murderer an abomination. This is gruesome stuff and I found it impossible to tear my eyes away. And all is set against the most perfectly described backdrops of a city devastated by death and mourning and a wonderfully creepy country house, likewise caught in the grip of something dreadful and disturbing. Increasing the mood are Stone’s haunted memories and dreams of his experiences in Afghanistan. It’s all mesmerising and every line of fine prose does its job to hook the reader in and keep them there.

I hope so much that Meshach Stone returns. If he does, that book will go straight to the top of my reading pile with no shadow of doubt.

Other reviews
Dead Pretty

The True Soldier by Paul Fraser Collard

Headline | 2017 (13 July) | c.400p | Review copy | Buy the book

The True Soldier by Paul Fraser CollardIt is 1861 and Jack Lark has turned his back on the British army after hard years fighting campaigns in Europe, Crimea and India. It’s a sad sense of duty and responsibility that drives Jack to Boston in the United States – Thomas Kearney, a comrade from the French Foreign Legion, never felt able to send his letters back to his family in America while alive but, since his death in battle, in Jack’s arms, it’s now fallen to Jack to do it for him. And so Jack arrives at the door of the wealthy and influential Kearney family in Boston and it’s there he is given new purpose.

War is imminent between the Union and Confederation – volunteers are joining both sides in their thousands. Samuel Kearney is a leading figure behind the scenes for the Unionists and his younger son Robert, as expected, has enlisted as a lieutenant in its army. But Kearney is under no illusion. Charming he might be, but Robert is not a natural soldier and the army he will fight in is untrained and untested. Samuel Kearney has no wish to lose another son to war and so he makes Jack an offer that is hard to refuse – Jack will become a sergeant in Robert’s Company and will be paid to do two jobs: to give the Company the benefit of his experience and skill and, above all else, to keep Robert safe. Elizabeth, Robert’s beautiful sister, adds her pleas to her father’s and she is not easy to turn down. It seems that Jack will also be fighting alongside Elizabeth’s fiancé Captain Ethan Rowell. That could prove to be as much a trial for Jack as facing the Confederates across a battlefield.

The Jack Lark series is one of my very favourites and it’s been a joy (albeit at times an anxious pleasure) to follow Jack’s exploits over the last few years. The novels differ in mood as Jack takes on a succession of different enemies in some of the most famous conflicts of the mid 19th century. In the past Jack has stolen identities and ranks, fighting as an officer under a false name, but his courage and military prowess have never been less than true. But there has been something of the loveable rogue about Jack and this is borne out in some of his exploits and relationships – of which there have been a fair few. But in The True Soldier, the sixth in the series, we have a very different Jack Lark.

Jack now fights as himself and he is no longer an officer. There is no cause left that he wishes to fight for. He is purposeless and his soul is bruised and hardened. But he discovers something of the old Jack Lark in this new challenge in a country that he knows very little about. He learns about the Union cause, the origins of the Civil War, and the drive to rid the United States of slavery. There is much for Jack to believe in, although it’s not that straightforward. Rich Union families, including the Kearneys, employ black servants and the divide between master and servant goes way beyond differences in social standing and wealth. Paul Fraser Collard informs us about all this through the wonderful medium of Rose, Elizabeth’s maid. Rose is a very intriguing and enigmatic character and is a refreshing change from some of the other women that Jack Lark has been drawn to in the past.

In these novels, Paul Fraser Collard never flinches from portraying the true horror of Victorian war and The True Soldier is no different. The American Civil War is shown to be particularly brutal due in part to the contrasting naivety of the American population. The Civil War is only just beginning and soldiers are being seen off with parades, flowers and kisses. Members of Washington’s society drive out in their carriages to watch the first ‘proper’ battle of the war with their picnics. But Jack knows what war is like and he’s proven right here time after time after time, and always in graphic technicolour. Some of the battle sequences are painful to read as men line up to face one another and then shoot. There’s nothing glamorous here about war or Jack’s role in it. It’s angry and bloody. But it never goes too far. Paul Fraser Collard is never gratuitous in his descriptions of battle. You know from what is implied that the reality would have been unimaginably worse.

I’ve always been interested in the American Civil War and I was delighted to hear that the author was sending Jack overseas to experience it. It works well that Jack is placed at the very beginning of the conflict. It means we can watch people change – both those who fought and those who spectated. Much of the second half of the novel is concerned with the Battle of Bull Run and it is brilliantly depicted. Jack Lark might be a fictional character but his role in the conflict seems real and likely, just another of the many immigrants who filled the army’s ranks.

The True Soldier both informs and entertains as, I believe, all good historical fiction should. This novel made me want to do more research on the events it depicts while also immersing me in the more intimate stories of Jack, Elizabeth, Robert, Ethan and Rose – and O’Dowd. I mustn’t forget O’Dowd. This is such a strong series and, while I have such a soft spot for The Maharajah’s General, I do believe The True Soldier could be among the best. I cannot wait to find out what happens next because surely this novel marks a new beginning for this fantastic hero, Jack Lark. As such, if you want to read it as a stand alone novel, then you certainly can.

Disclaimer: Paul Fraser Collard is, I’m honoured to say, a friend of mine. But this in no way affects the honesty of this review. Paul just happens to write great books.

Other reviews and posts
The Scarlet Thief
The Maharajah’s General
The Devil’s Assassin
The Lone Warrior
The Last Legionnaire
Guest post: ‘I am a writer with a plan’
Guest post – ‘Commute writing’

The Wages of Sin by Kaite Welsh

Tinder Press | 2017 (1 June) | 320p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Wages of Sin by Kaite WelshIt is 1892 and, for the first time, the University of Edinburgh’s medical centre permits women entry to train to become doctors. Sarah Gilchrist is one of the first cohort of female students and, every single day she and her classmates are reminded how unpopular they are – by the male students, their lecturers and by society in general, which regards them as unnatural to their sex. And Sarah Gilchrist has it tougher than most. Sarah is an exile from London. From among the upper classes, which in itself marks her out, Sarah has been expelled from her family on account of a scandal for which Sarah was blamed entirely. She now lives a virtual prisoner under the roof of her aunt and uncle whose instruction is to improve Sarah and make her suitable for marriage. Studying to become a doctor is the last thing they want for Sarah but even they understand that this disinherited and discarded young woman must earn a living somehow. And there are worse ways…

The Wages of Sin immerses us in an Edinburgh that is stricken by that Victorian disease of hypocritical and dishonest morality. The city is itself divided in two, between its respectable side which lives in the streets under the sky, and then its poverty-stricken and dangerous side, which hides in buried sewer streets of brothels, taverns and opium dens. Sarah moves between the two, training to become a doctor in the University, scrutinised by chaperones, and helping out in a hospital for the deserving poor, attending, among others, prostitutes and drunks. And when one of Sarah’s patients from the hospital, a young prostitute, ends up on the dissecting table of her medical class, the two worlds collide and Sarah is determined to find justice for the poor girl, no matter the danger to herself. Sarah believes that the greatest weapon anyone can hold over her is her past. She is wrong.

I love Victorian mysteries and the darker they are the better, and The Wages of Sin is steeped in atmosphere. Everything is described so richly, from the medical hospital to the slums to the parlours of the rich and respectable. The colours are so well painted. I felt like I was moving through a world of brown velvet, of wood-panelled walls and cold, ill-lit streets. But the atmosphere is squeezed and oppressed by the prejudice that these young female students face day in day out and, in particular, the absolute injustice that Sarah has been dealt. Sarah’s story is agonising and made even more powerful that we only hear it bits at a time and what we learn is shocking. It’s not often when I read a book that I feel rage but I felt it for Sarah Gilchrist.

The origins of feminism can be found in this marvellous novel and it doesn’t always make easy reading. The chauvinism of the students and the lecturers towards the female students pales by comparison against the cruelty of Sarah’s own family. On top of this we have the hypocrisy of Victorian philanthropists and the brutality suffered by the poor. There is a great deal here to make my hackles rise and that’s even before we get to the murder mystery!

The Wages of Sin is as much a scrutiny of its times as it is a crime novel and it is very well done indeed. It takes its time to build up this world. The story is told by Sarah herself and it is weighted by the burden she carries. She is so easy to like but the risks she runs! The mistakes she makes! It’s such a good story and a wonderful debut by Kaite Welsh. The good news is that this is the first in a series. I am so pleased that we’ll be seeing Sarah again and I’ll be cheering on this pioneering young woman.

A Mask of Shadows by Oscar de Muriel

Penguin | 2017 (6 April) | 496p | Review copy | Buy the book

A Mask of Shadows by Oscar de MurielIt is 1889 and Edinburgh is alive with a theatrical fervour – Ellen Terry and Henry Irving, those most glamorous and famous of actors, are bringing Shakespeare’s Macbeth to the city. The Scottish Play is coming home! Unfortunately, they’re bringing with them murder and mayhem.

The production’s closing night in London had been spoiled – or enriched (depending on your point of view) – by the unnatural shrieks of a banshee, accompanied by unclearly targeted death threats against members of the company. Irving is not going to let this stop the production’s move and so the company heads to Edinburgh where, during rehearsals, more banshee wailings and death threats promise dire consequences for the cast and crew on the opening night of Macbeth. Some might say that this is no more than The Curse. Others might even suggest that this is better than any bought publicity could be. Detective Nine-Nails McGray, however, can always be relied upon to find the unnatural and supernatural in most cases, while Inspector Ian Frey, whose Englishness continues to cause him a great deal of trouble from McGrey, is determined to prove these threats have a more mundane origin. They even put a bet on it. But who will win the wager? And will the threats come true – will there be murder on the opening night of Macbeth? One thing’s for sure – the theatre will be absolutely packed to the rafters.

As soon as I heard about A Mask of Shadows I couldn’t wait to read it. Its predecessor, A Fever of the Blood, was one of my top reads of 2016 and I was more than ready to spend more time with the incorrigible and ever battling Frey and McGray. Frey might be the voice of reason – or, at least, that’s what he wants you to think – but McGray, with his tartan, strong accent and feisty attitude, is a scene stealer if ever there was one. I love the banter between these two men. It’s never too clear just how much all this professed hatred is genuine but one can’t help thinking that deep deep down McGrey doesn’t entirely despise his colleague from the wrong side of the border.

McGray and Frey have certainly met their match in this case. Henry Irving and Ellen Terry are extraordinary personalities, both intimidating and charismatic. It is true that Ellen Terry frightened me in a way that I can’t quite put my finger on. And observing it all is the production’s manager Bram Stoker, yet another person we know from history who also shouldn’t be taken too lightly. The mood of this novel is so dimly lit and intensely spirited that I wouldn’t have been surprised if Dracula prowled the theatre’s wings.

I really enjoy Oscar de Muriel’s writing. This is Victorian melodrama at its richest, darkest and most enticing. The dialogue is full of colour and wit (and imaginative insults). The costumes, both on and off stage, are vividly described. The streets of Edinburgh come alive, walked upon by people in top hats and crinolines. You can almost feel the city’s need for the heightened excitement and thrills of the play’s arrival in its grandest theatre. The atmosphere and mood ooze from the pages in the most delicious fashion.

But there is a dark reality here, too, removed from the melodrama of the stage. We meet people, children even, who have been badly harmed. We learn of secrets and deceits. Real personal feelings have been hurt. At times this is a tragic read for all of its glamour and theatricality. I love this mix of reality and imagination and that sums up perfectly the relationship between Frey and McGray, two of the most wonderful and original detectives you could meet in historical crime fiction.

Oscar de Muriel has established himself firmly as one of my favourite authors. His books will always go to the top of my reading pile and it’s a pleasure to write about them.

Other review
A Fever of the Blood