Tag Archives: Georgian

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 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.

Blood and Sugar by Laura Shepherd-Robinson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wrecker by Noel O’Reilly

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Body in the Boat by A.J. MacKenzie

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

The Body in the Boat by AJ MacKenzie

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

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

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

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

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

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

Other review
The Body in the Ice

The Wicked Cometh by Laura Carlin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock by Imogen Hermes Gowar

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.