Category Archives: Victorian

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

My Name is Victoria by Lucy Worsley

Bloomsbury Childrens | 2017 (9 March) | 384p | Review copy | Buy the book

My Name is Victoria by Lucy WorsleyIt is the late 1820s and King George IV is close to death. He will be succeeded by his brother William who is not expected to survive George for long. His heir, Princess Victoria, is effectively held captive in Kensington Palace by her mother and her mother’s dearest friend Sir John Conroy. Conroy is the creator of the Kensington System, a regime designed to keep Victoria constantly under observation and so secure from the plots of her royal relatives who might fancy themselves as heirs to the British throne, rather than this lonely, unhappy yet spirited child. But Conroy wants to extend his influence over Victoria even more and to do that he gives Victoria his own daughter, known to one and all as Miss V (to distinguish her from Miss Conroy, her elder sister, and from the princess), as companion, sister and, Conroy hopes, spy. But both Victoria and Miss V have minds of their own and, after uneasy and suspicious beginnings, they form the tightest of friendships.

And so begins the story of Princess Victoria and Miss V’s friendship. With half of the novel covering their years as small children, about the age of 10 or 11, the second takes us up to their later teens and the arrival of German princes and the relentless approach of fate in the shape of an ailing King William IV.

Lucy Worsley does such a fine job of spreading her enthusiasm and knowledge of history. She’s an inspirational presenter and writer, and I loved Eliza Rose, Lucy Worsley’s debut novel for young adults which told the story of Henry VIII’s tragic fifth queen, Katherine Howard. This time, the author goes back (or forward) to another period of history and once again reveals a young girl who is in many ways, despite the glamorous appearances of power, a vulnerable victim of history. Princess Victoria, though, is determined to win her freedom from the enemy, which is here represented by Conroy and the Kensington System. And history tells us how this will turn out.

But My Name is Victoria isn’t quite as it seems and it’s possibly because of this that the book lost me during the second half when we move from historical fiction to historical fantasy or alternate history. This is, though, my fault. I’ve never got on with alternate history, especially when I know quite well the period of history from which we’re diverted. However likeable, stubborn and proud she is, I didn’t recognise Princess Victoria from history, or her mother, or the German princes. The princess’s mother plays barely a role here.

Having said all that, this is a novel aimed at children, not at me. Whereas Eliza Rose seemed to me to have a wide appeal across ages – perhaps because of its themes and dire consequences, My Name is Victoria feels more comfortably targeted at younger readers. And I have no doubt that they will thoroughly enjoy it! I love the idea of children being inspired to discover history for themselves thanks to the skills of such historians and writers as Lucy Worsley. This happened to me as a child and teenager with the marvellous Jean Plaidy, whose books I still cherish all these years on. I can see parallels between Jean Plaidy and Lucy Worsley and that makes me very happy indeed. I’ll be sure to read all of the novels that Lucy Worsley produces, even though I must accept that not all of them, or indeed any, were written with me in mind!

Other review
Eliza Rose

Dark Asylum by E.S. Thomson

Constable | 2017 | 384p | Review copy | Buy the book

Dark Asylum by ES ThomsonIt is 1852 and St Saviour’s monastery in London is no more, its hospital relocated. But Jem Flockhart, the apothecary to the infirmary, has stayed behind thanks to roots too deeply embedded. Jem isn’t quite what he seems, and not only because of the large birthmark that obscures the top half of his face like a Venetian mask. Jem is a woman, brought up as a boy and then a young man by a father who turned mad. And now Jem works as apothecary in the place where her father died, the Angel Meadow Asylum across the road from what survives of the monastery and Jem’s beloved infirmary garden.

The head doctor of Angel Meadows, Dr Hawkins, has been away for some time, having left the care of the asylum in the hands of Dr Rutherford, a man with his own brutal theories about the ways in which to treat the souls in his care. Few mourn when, on Dr Hawkins’ return to the asylum, Dr Rutherford is found murdered in his rooms. But this is no typical murder – Rutherford’s head is bashed in, his ears cut off, his eyes and lips are sewn shut. There will be many suspects, not all of whom are locked in their rooms at night, and Dr Hawkins gives the case to Jem and his close friend Will Quartermain. Jem and Will have proven their detective skills already and both are indefatigable in their pursuit of truth and justice as they move through a society that is as black as night for its cruelty, madness and punishment.

Dark Asylum is the second novel to feature Jem and Will. It follows close on the heels of Beloved Poison, an outstanding historical crime debut from E.S. Thomson. Each book stands alone well but I certainly recommend that you read them both.

Dark Asylum takes us into a part of Victorian London at its very worst. The fact that some of its inhabitants are scientists and doctors makes its corruption and casual injustice seem even worse. The poor, especially the insane, have little value – their actual bones and brains matter more to most of the doctors than their living bodies and welfare. We meet some pitiful men and women within the walls of Angel Meadows. The moral corruption is matched by the stench of the place, its dirt and squalour. And its misery. There is light, though, and it comes from Jem and Will’s pursuit of justice, as well as the sincere efforts of one or two of the doctors to help their patients come through a disease that yields no physical symptoms to treat. There is entertainment, too, from one eccentric doctor in particular.

The medical detail is absolutely fascinating and I was engrossed by E.S. Thomson’s recreation of this dark asylum and the people in it, whether doctors, doctors’ wives, servants or patients. We travel outside the asylum, too, thanks to the journal extracts scattered throughout the novel which tell the sad and compelling story of a female slum-dweller and convict. The glimpse of life aboard a convict ship bound for the other side of the world is especially involving – and repellant.

Jem’s double life provides the heart of the novel and it’s affect on him/her is immense and colours almost everything that she does, as well as her relationships. E.S. Thomson writes Jem’s life with such feeling and it is wonderful to see Will’s behaviour towards his friend. I really care for Jem, even though there are things she does, moral judgements she makes, that are harder to understand.

It is because of Jem and the fabulous mood and atmosphere that E.S. Thomson builds that I have been waiting so impatiently for this follow-up to Beloved Poison. I was thrilled to receive it and it satisfied all my expectations. Long may the series continue!

Other review
Beloved Poison

The Smoke Hunter by Jacquelyn Benson

Headline | 2016 | 448p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Smoke Hunter by Jacquelyn BensonIt is London 1898 and Eleonora (Ellie) Mallory was born at the wrong time. She might have a degree from the University of London but it counts for almost nothing in this man’s world. What she really wants to be doing is fulfilling her ambitious archaeological dreams, just like her cousin Neil who is currently digging up Egyptian ruins, but she’s had to settle for an archivist job in London and even that looks like it’s about to come to an end thanks to her recent arrest – Ellie is a proud suffragette. But as Ellie sits in her boss’s office waiting to be sacked she notices an old psalter amongst the mess of papers scattered around his desk and in it is an unusual medallion and what appears to be a map to a lost ‘white’ city hidden away in the jungles of central America. Ellie cannot resist it, nor its lure of adventure.

But Ellie is not the only one after the map and when it brings trouble to her home she does something extraordinary. In disguise, Ellie runs into the night and boards a ship bound for central America, for excitement, adventure, riches, independence, jungles, snakes, evil traps, villains and murderers, a potentially agonising death, and handsome maverick archaeologist Adam Bates.

The Smoke Hunter is a lot of fun. A relatively long novel, its pages are packed to the gills with the promise of adventure and freedom for this young woman who fights against the rules of the age and gender. The prologue sets the scene perfectly, evoking the mysterious lost civilisation that Ellie is so intent on rediscovering. The novel is reminiscent of gloriously fun archaeology movies set in the golden days of exploration, such as Indiana Jones and the Mummy films. Ellie is described so well, her thoughts and dreams as well as her frustration and inner rage, that she is easy to picture.

I think that for me, though, there are too many occasions when Ellie pretends that she isn’t swooning over Adam’s strong biceps or his handsome face. They seem to surprise each other in various states of undress on a regular basis and Ellie’s underclothes have a habit of clinging to her when they’re wet. Adam himself seems a rather familiar character type and I also found their continual misunderstandings rather waring and predictable. The main issue for me on reflection is that Ellie seems out of time. She doesn’t ring true as a young woman of 1898 and neither does her friend Constance.

All of this is probably me taking a light historical adventure far too seriously. The Smoke Hunter is undoubtedly entertaining and, as Ellie and Adam try to stay one step ahead of the baddies while solving the enigmatic mystery of the smoking mirror (not to mention a bunch of death traps), it offers hours of escapist pleasure – no bad thing in these grim times and that was a big reason why I was drawn to it. It certainly cheered me up and I looked forward to picking it up each day, never quite sure what would happen next in the dangerously enticing jungle.

The Devil’s Feast by M.J. Carter

The Devil’s Feast | M.J. Carter | 2016 (27 October) | Fig Tree | 362p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Devil's Feast by M.J. CarterIt is 1842 and London has a new and very grand gentleman’s club – The Reform Club on Pall Mall. Established to provide a home from home for Radicals and Whigs, in direct opposition to the neighbouring Tory Carlton Club, the Reform Club has become famous, rightly so, for its food, all created under the loving eye of London’s first celebrity chef, Monsieur Alexis Soyer, ‘the Napoleon of food’.

Captain William Avery has left his wife and newborn son at home in Devon while he rushes to London to seek out the whereabouts of his good friend and investigative partner Jeremiah Blake, who appears to have vanished in thin air. Avery is pleased to be distracted from the anxiety of worry by an invitation from another friend to dine at the Reform Club as a guest of M. Soyer and, despite Avery’s devout Toryism, this is not an invitation to decline. All goes well – the dinner is superb, M. Soyer is a charming host – until one of the guests leaves the table never to return. He is poisoned! The Club is about to host a high profile and important diplomatic dinner, with none other than Lord Palmerston and the Prince of Egypt in attendance and peace in the Middle East as their goal. The significance of the poisoning cannot be underestimated, and not just for the reputation of the Club and Soyer. Even worse, was this a practice run? The Club’s Board immediately implores Avery to investigate the murder. If only Blake were around to lend a hand.

The Devil’s Feast is the third novel in M.J. Carter’s excellent Victorian mystery series to feature Avery and Blake and I was delighted to return to their company. I’m a big fan of historical murder mysteries and this series has become a firm favourite of mine – for the brilliant characters of Avery and Blake but also for the novels’ evocative and atmospheric historical setting. Each of these novels stands alone very well although, as usual, there are benefits to be had by reading them in order. While the first novel The Strangler Vine captured perfectly the exotic appeal and danger of India, the second novel, The Printer’s Coffin (originally The Infidel Stain), placed us in the workhouses, pubs and prisons of 1840s’ London, with all of the injustice and sadness that this entailed. This powerful sense of Victorian hypocrisy and cruelty continues, I’m pleased to say, in The Devil’s Feast.

The Radicals in the Reform Club might debate change but it’s people like Soyer who actually try to bring it about – offering the chance of employment to London’s poorest, organising soup kitchens in London’s most deprived areas. The club is concerned to facilitate this diplomatic dinner but their eyes have shifted from the causes closer at hand. M.J. Carter doesn’t labour the point, she’s far too gifted a novelist for that, but she makes the reader care about what is going on outside the walls of the Club every bit as much as inside it. Our time in the novel is spent divided between upstairs in the dining rooms and downstairs in the kitchens and the most fascinating characters are arguably to be found below.

There are some wonderful characters in The Devil’s Feast and chief among them is the extraordinary Alexis Soyer, a true historical figure who changed so many things about the ways in which kitchens worked and were run. His life was full of adventure, some of which you couldn’t make up, and M.J. Carter brings him to life.

The relationship between Avery and Blake is always enjoyable and it is again here. Blake in particular is a scene stealer and here there’s something of Sherlock Holmes about him in lots of different ways. Avery is once more our narrator and for much of the time he has a struggle on his hands to work out exactly what is going on.

While I found the actual mystery in The Devil’s Feast to be less involving than those in the previous novels, this didn’t affect my enjoyment. I love how M.J. Carter writes and how she immerses me in the historical setting, both in time and place. The people are so well drawn and many of them evoke lost worlds that continue to fascinate – Victorian politics and injustice, Radicalism, fashionable cuisine and inventions, service and poverty, prison and punishment. This is a series that rewards the reader in abundance.

Other posts
A review: The Printer’s Coffin (published in Hb as The Infidel Stain)
Guest post: Who were the Infidels?

War in The Last Horseman – Guest post by author David Gilman

The Last Horseman by David GilmanDavid Gilman is arguably best known for his Master of War series which brings the Hundred Years War of the 14th century to fascinating, bloody life through the deeds and experiences of English longbowman Thomas Blackstone. David has recently taken a break from the Middle Ages to turn his attention to a later conflict – the Anglo-Boer War of the 19th century – in The Last Horseman (published by Head of Zeus on 11 August this year).

To celebrate the publication, I asked David Gilman to write a guest post on the historical background of the war. But before that, here is a little by David on why he chose to write about this new period.

The inspiration behind The Last Horseman came from various sources. I had lived in South Africa and knew not only its beauty but also the harshness of its land. Such a country demanded tough and resilient people to live there, and equally determined men from around the world who went to explore and search for its mineral wealth. The war that exploded in 1899 threw British soldiers against a determined and dogged enemy. It was a story that had seldom been written about in fiction. The vast sweep of the country, the drama that unfolded in this war and the characters caught up in it, enticed me. I also wanted another layer of interest to write about, and for the novel not to just be a ‘war story’. The facts fascinated me. Many Irish soldiers fought in the British Army and they found themselves in conflict against a Foreign Brigade made up of other Irishmen as well as Americans, Germans, French, and as records seem to indicate, one Scotsman. I spent time in Dublin researching these elements.

I did not want a typically heroic main character but rather an older man who had experienced the horror of war and had no desire to return to it. His main enemy, apart from war itself, was a battle-hardened cavalry officer who lived only for battle and the violence it brought. Added to this mix I wanted my main character, Joseph Radcliffe, to carry a secret burden. I added some political intrigue and murder, all these elements finally drew together in what I hope is an ending fraught with danger and excitement.

War in The Last Horseman

So, where did this violent conflict of the Anglo-Boer War originate? In 1895 a failed uprising by British immigrants, volunteers and Rhodesian troops – a scheme instigated by Cecil Rhodes, Prime Minister of the Cape Colony – was considered by the South African general, Jan Smuts, as being the real declaration of war, but it was another four years before the Boer Republics themselves declared war against the British in October 1899. The might of the British Empire gave British politicians and generals a false sense that an easy victory would be achieved by Christmas. It is a perpetual mystery why politicians, in particular, seem never to learn the lessons of history.

The war caught the British unprepared. Troops were drafted from the Empire – India, New Zealand, Canada, New Zealand and Australia – and as tensions heightened volunteers joined the Boer Republics to fight in the Foreign Brigade. Irish, French, Scandinavians, Germans, Russians and, in at least one recorded incident, a Scotsman fought for the Afrikaner cause. There were also women who fought alongside the Boers in the front line.

In the years before the war began, the rush for gold and diamonds in the Transvaal Republic brought men from across the world, and many of them were Irish, who not only brought their strength and dreams to the goldfields but also secured their escape from British rule in Ireland. It was one of the vagaries of war that brought Irishmen to bear arms against each other.

In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries Ireland was part of the British Empire. The Irish Republicans – known then as Fenians – had had little success in their bid for Home Rule. Their ranks were riddled with traitors and the British Army and Irish constabulary had little difficulty in keeping their activities under control. The Irish served in government posts: the civil service, the military and the navy. It was an inconvenient fact for the Irish Nationalists that more than fifty thousand of their fellow countrymen fought for the British Army during the Boer War and were often led by Irish generals.

This constituted the greatest number of Irish troops in any campaign during Queen Victoria’s reign and many of these men were at the forefront of a number of key engagements, serving in Ireland’s thirteen infantry battalions and three cavalry regiments. These men forged a lasting reputation for courage and tenacity. It was this moment in history that I wanted to use in The Last Horseman.

Reviews of the Master of War series
Master of War
Defiant Unto Death
Gate of the Dead (with interview)