Tag Archives: 18th-century

Daughters of Night by Laura-Shepherd Robinson

Mantle | 2021 (18 February) | 592p | Review copy and Bought copy | Buy the book | Listen to the book

It is 1782 in London and Caroline (Caro) Corsham desperately waits for her husband Captain Harry Corsham to return from France where he has been for too many weeks. Caro amuses herself in the meantime by visits to Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens and it is there that she horrifyingly comes across a friend, Lady Lucia, an Italian aristocrat, who has been attacked and dies in Caro’s arms. There are more shocks to come. Caro discovers that Lucia wasn’t Italian or an aristocrat, she was a prostitute known as Lucy Loveless. The police have no interest in hunting for the killer of such a woman and so Caro takes it upon herself to avenge this young woman, hiring thief taker Peregrine Child to lead the investigation. But what a world it is that Caro and Child discover as they become immersed in a London society that values paintings and classical sculptures far more than it does the women it craves.

Daughters of Night is one of my most anticipated novels on 2021 and how could it not be when it follows the superb debut Blood & Sugar? My impatience hasn’t been helped by the repeated delays in publication date due to You Know What. But now it is here and it is every bit as marvellous, and as clever, as its predecessor. There is a link – Caro is the wife of our previous main character Harry (who is largely in the wings for this novel) – but otherwise Daughters of Night stands alone very well. But I also think that the two novels complement each other brilliantly.

In Blood & Sugar Laura Shepherd-Robinson tackled the monster that is Slavery, focusing on the men and women, free and enslaved, of Deptford. In Daughters of Night, the author turns to the place of women in a Georgian society that believes itself cultured, refined and well-educated, largely thanks to its immersion in the classical past and its looted works of art. Caro is an unusual woman (you’ll have to read the novel to find out exactly why) and is largely at the mercy of her brothers while her husband is absent. She seems independent but we see how untrue that is as the novel continues. But while Caro is the main character she isn’t the only woman who matters very much in Daughters of Night. We follow the story of Pamela, a young girl who falls into prostitution and has her real name taken from her. Pamela’s very interesting. She regards prostitution as an escape from her previous life and she grabs what chances she can. She’s not always likable, far from it, but we care for her. And then there’s the powerful story of Lucy Loveless. We also meet wives and daughters and lovers of other men. There are so many secrets, so many lies and, for some, so little love.

Daughters of Night is a complex novel in some ways, while being always accessible and engrossing. It has many layers and it’s Caro and Child who unravel them. I loved the role of art in the book, how a famous artist would use a prostitute as his model for a goddess. These women are both muse and prey. There is so much artifice and hypocrisy. We see the men in the studio, in their clubs, in brothels, in their drawing rooms, with their creditors and in their hunting fields. It is through the character of Child that we’re given deeper access into this world.

It’s an involving story with a wealth of characters moving through the pages. I listened to the audiobook, which is marvellously narrated by Lucy Scott (well known for her depiction of Charlotte Lucas in the BBC production of Pride and Prejudice) who brings these people to life, both female and male. But, whatever the format you choose (and it is a gorgeous hardback!), it’s engrossing and full of historical details that place the reader firmly in Georgian London, a place both gorgeous and squalid, with its (male) predilection for classical culture, for collecting women and for controlling them, even owning them.

Laura Shepherd-Robinson writes so beautifully and her characters are astonishingly varied and real. It’s a long book and I’m glad of it. I can’t wait for more. An early contender for my top book of 2021.

Other review
Blood & Sugar

The Silver Collar by Antonia Hodgson

Hodder & Stoughton | 2020 (6 August) | 352p | Bought copy | Buy the book | Listen to the audiobook

It is 1728 and all is good at last for Thomas ‘Half-Hanged’ Hawkins, the one time minor aristocrat, and Kitty Sparks, the owner of the rather disreputable The Cocked Pistol bookshop. But they are not to be left in peace. Kitty is forced to give up the bookshop while Thomas is attacked in the street and discovers that there is a price on his head. Neither of them can understand the reason why but it’s not long before they begin to associate events with the arrival in London of the enigmatic, cunning Lady Vanhook, who has returned from Antigua with her favourite slave girl, Affie, by her side, a silver collar clasped around the girl’s neck.

The Silver Collar is the fourth novel in Antonia Hodgson’s wonderful Tom Hawkins series, set in Georgian London and beyond. It’s been a few years now since the last novel and so I was really excited to read this. You don’t need to have read the earlier books. We’re soon reminded of what’s happened before, but I do recommend them. The Silver Collar is my favourite of the four. I love Tom and Kitty. These are witty books and the relationship between the two main characters is so alive and vigorous (in more ways than one), partly due to the author’s sparkling dialogue. Tom and Kitty make me laugh but, in this novel especially, they made me cry, too. I have missed them!

The Silver Collar tells a fantastic story – it’s an intense, action-packed drama and it is driven by sinister and actually pretty terrifying Lady Vanhook. It’s hard for me to remember another fictional villain that I have hated quite as much as this one. But she’s also a scene stealer. Through her we learn much more about our heroine Kitty and so the reader is drawn to her even more.

These books are full of brilliant characters. I love Sam, the young boy from a family of gangsters who has sort of adopted Tom as a surrogate father. His mother, the gang leader, is hysterical (and especially entertaining in the audiobook). But there are new characters in The Silver Collar who leave a long and lasting expression – the young slave girl Affie and her father Jeremiah Patience whose story is utterly horrific. Slavery adds another dimension to the novel, a warning that there was far more to Georgian England than wigs, debauchery and gangs. The role of women in this society is also considered. Kitty, herself, is extremely vulnerable no matter how tough she thinks it is.

Parts of The Silver Collar are upsetting to read, especially, but not only, the sections in which Jeremiah recounts his story. But it is well worth the emotion of reading it and I must say that the ending is fantastic. This is a very good novel indeed, by an author who writes beautifully and with such empathy for her characters and this period, but who is also very witty and always entertaining. It is also a pageturner! I was engrossed in the audiobook, which is read so well by Joseph Kloska. And, as I mentioned earlier, if you haven’t read the earlier books, you really must! The first is The Devil in the Marshalsea (I don’t have a review up for this as I read it as part of judging for an HWA award, for which is was shortlisted).

Other reviews
The Last Confession of Thomas Hawkins
A Death at Fountains Abbey

The Foundling by Stacey Halls

Manilla Press | 2020 (6 February) | 371p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Foundling by Stacey HallsIt is 1747 when Bess Bright walks with her father Abe to the Foundling Hospital on the northern fringes of London. Bess can hardly walk. She gave birth just hours ago and now she must leave her newborn, illegitimate daughter Clara with strangers, abandoning her as a foundling, with just a token for her daughter and the hospital to know her by. Six years later Clara returns to the hospital with the money that she has spent years saving. At last she can buy back her daughter and be her mother again. But Bess discovers that, just the day after Clara was left, a woman claiming to be Bess turned up and carried the baby away as her own. It is a catastrophe and Bess’s life is almost destroyed. Only one thing can save her – the hope that she will find her daughter and the woman who stole her.

A mile from Clara a young widow, Alexandra, lives in her gloomy townhouse with a couple of servants. She hasn’t set foot outside the house for a decade except for her weekly Sunday trips to church. And that is the only time that her little six-year-old daughter Charlotte feels the sun on her face and can breathe fresh air. Otherwise, she is confined to the house with her unhappy mother. The vicar knows that something must change and suggests that Charlotte should have a nursery maid to help look after her and puts forward a young woman that he knows, Eliza. Alexandra dreads having somebody new in her house, disrupting her carefully constructed and elaborate routine. But she will find she has no choice as the past threatens to catch up with her.

I loved The Familiars, Stacey Hall’s brilliant debut novel, and so I couldn’t wait to read The Foundling, another stand alone historical mystery with another stunning cover. These are gorgeous books! This time we are placed in London in the mid 18th century and it is a very different place for Bess and Alexandra. The novel moves between the two women, using the first person narrative for both and so we are immersed in their lives, and it’s fascinating to see their worlds constructed. Bess leads a hard and poor life as a hawker walking the streets of London selling boiled prawns from the stinking, scalding basket on her head. I love the way in which Stacey Halls describes the everyday turmoil of her life. Alexandra is very different. She is a widow of some means but one who has agoraphobia and who cannot leave her dark and unhappy house except for church.

I enjoyed getting to know Bess, Alexandra and the enchanting Charlotte very much. This is such a beautifully written and deeply atmospheric novel, with a touch of the Gothic to it as we see the world though Alexandra’s tormented eyes. I liked Beth a great deal but I surprised myself by falling most deeply for Alexandra. I loved the way in which her story is revealed.

There are coincidences in the novel, which did contribute to it feeling not entirely plausible or convincing. There is a plot device that I’m not sure about. But, nevertheless, this is a gorgeous and enchanting read that pulls at the heartstrings, sometimes for unexpected reasons. I’ve always been fascinated by the Foundling Hospital, now a museum, and the tokens left by women who had to make such a terrible choice. As a result, I couldn’t resist The Foundling and, very unusually for me, I read it in just one day, even though that day was a very full one. I did not want to put it down unread. It is wholly engrossing. And just look at the cover! The inside cover is just as gorgeous.

Other review
The Familiars

The Warlow Experiment by Alix Nathan

Serpent’s Tail | 2019 (4 July) | 278p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Warlow Experiment by Alix NathanIt is 1793 and Herbert Powyss, living on a small estate in the Welsh Marches, is an enlightened man. He reads the latest scientific and philosophical texts. He exchanges letters with some of the finest minds of the day. Yet his life is mostly one of seclusion and solitude. But Powyss is a man who wants to leave his mark. What he really wants, though, is to impress London’s Royal Society. To do that Powyss comes up with a radical experiment. He will pay a man fifty pounds a year for the rest of his life if he will spend seven years in perfect isolation in the cellar of his manor. He wants to test the limits of the human mind, its appetite for fulfilment and improvement when it is deprived of human society.

Perhaps not surprisingly there isn’t a rush to answer Powyss’ advertisement. Only one man replies – John Warlow, a semi-illiterate brutish labourer with a wife and six living children (six other children died). What need has Warlow of the fine books, the organ and music, the journals to record his enlightenment through the seven long years? Powyss is about to discover the fine line between enlightenment and madness.

The Warlow Experiment is a beautiful book in so many ways. The cover and the inside cover are stunning with their images of flowers, insects and fruits – the rewards of life. Inside there are wonders to be found. Alix Nathan’s prose is captivating. It captures the Enlightenment scientists’ hunger for knowledge as Powyss spends time examining the world around him and questioning it. But these chapters, full of analysis, detailed description, curiosity and awe, alternate with those that take us into the dark cellar where John Warlow festers. In these chapters, the language falters. Warlow has no education. In utter boredom he tries to grapple with the books and journal but it can’t make up for the companionship he misses and seeks now where he can find it – with the frogs that drop in through the cistern.

This is a captivating, fascinating novel. It takes us back to the time of the French Revolution, a time in which ideas have become dangerous and forbidden. The ideas of the revolution have stretched across the Channel to England. Powyss feels fear. But his feelings are far more complicated than that and much of that is to do with Warlow. Powyss is about to learn far more about himself than he ever imagined.

There is an inevitability about The Warlow Experiment that, for me, meant that the first half was more successful than the first but I really enjoyed this novel. I loved its language, its portrayal of a time of scientific enquiry contrasting with the reality of the poverty faced by most of the population. This is a time ripe for revolution. Science is teetering on a knife edge as necessity and hunger rise up in desperation. But it’s not as simple as that, as the character of Warlow demonstrates so brutally. The Warlow Experiment immediately appeals to the reader with its beautiful cover and inside cover. It invites the reader in. And what they find there will not disappoint.

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.

Skin and Bone by Robin Blake

Skin and Bone | Robin Blake | 2016 | Constable | 337p | Review copy | Buy the book

Skin and Bone by Robin BlakeIt is 1743 and the town of Preston in Lancashire is uneasy – the town’s fat cats are threatening to overhaul many of the local traditions in the name of ‘improvement’. The mayor, businessmen and gentry all seem to be in cahoots to transform the town, motivated by the formidable Mr Scroop. They’ve even hired the ingenious Mr Kay with his mysteriously scientific surveying equipment to assess the area, not that he’s letting on exactly what he’s been hired for. And then the worst thing happens.

The body of a baby girl is found inside one of the vats in the leather skinyard, one of the places of industry that the local bigwigs wish to overhaul. The assumption is immediately, and not surprisingly, made that a loose woman has killed her fatherless baby to disguise her sin. But coroner Titus Cragg and his doctor friend Luke Fidelis are not so sure and the forensic evidence suggests that they are right. All well and good until the inquest, held in an inn, is halted by the inn’s unpleasant and unexpected fiery combustion. Fortunately, everyone gets out relatively unscathed but reputations are far harder to safeguard than mere flesh and blood.

I first met Cragg and Fidelis in last year’s The Scrivener and I fell for them instantly. Each of the books stand alone well and can be read out of order if needs be. This isn’t a period I tend to be drawn to usually but Robin Blake makes it fascinating by exploring it in so much detail within one community, and one that isn’t in London either. All levels of society are brought before us, from the poorest to the most wealthy, demonstrating that goodness has no correlation whatsoever with worldly possessions. And the one person who should know that better than anyone is Preston’s coroner Titus Cragg. This case, though, is particularly tragic, not only because the victim is such a small child but also because it hints at great trauma and tragedy in the lives of others. The community cannot help but be affected, regardless of the moral preaching of the town’s ‘betters’, who are perfectly happy to pin all the blame on its mother, whoever that might be.

Cragg and his wife Elizabeth are such a pleasure to be around, each highly opinionated and yet so generous of spirit. Cragg is a seeker after the truth, he is incorruptible and so he’s not a pushover. He also has a wider interest in the social and scientific developments of the day, keen to further his reading (and Elizabeth’s) whenever he can. Dr Fidelis is a different kettle of fish altogether, equally curious and thorough in his scientific investigations, but with his mind on other things as well – in this case, his acquisition of a fighting cock of all things.

There is such a cast of characters to enjoy here, including the town of Preston itself, so different from the town it is now and so vividly painted. I like that it’s so far from the more familiar streets of London. These are such original historical mysteries. I love the way that Robin Blake writes – he captures the times without overdoing it, there are so many interesting little details, so many dashes of local colour and humour, as well as insight into mid 18th-century thought. The rise of new technologies would have been a cause of much anguish to labourers – in the fields and in industry – and this makes a worthy theme to Skin and Bone especially when it is set beside such a satisfying and involving mystery.