From The Guardian
This is the time of the year to curl up beside the fire with an engrossing novel. We’ve inherited the jolly family Christmas invented by Dickens which is all about feasting, affection and cheerfulness and we pay lip service to it though we know, just as he did, that being compelled to spend time with your relatives is not always the most enjoyable experience of the year.
Three of my novels, The Quincunx, The Unburied and my latest, Rustication, happen wholly or partly over Christmas and show the darker – even menacing – side of family and friendship. They are all set in the 19th century and evoke the fiction of that period. There has been a vogue in the last 25 years for the “neo-Victorian novel” (horrible term, but hard to think of a better one) which is not just a historical novel but an attempt to recreate the mindset and conventions of that period. I think its appeal is that it lets the writer exploit the cosy/menacing ambivalence encapsulated in the Dickensian Christmas.
Here are 10 of the best exercises in the “neo-Victorian” genre which, to varying degrees, don’t merely use the 19th-century setting but exploit readers’ knowledge of the fiction of that period:
The world of Dickens is superbly evoked in this vivid excursion into thieves’ kitchens, grand houses, and lunatic asylums, but the great achievement is the brilliant plot twist that is much more like the sort of trick played on the reader by Wilkie Collins at his cleverest than Dickens’s generally clumsy plotting. (Great Expectations excepted!) We’re encouraged to make assumptions about the characters that are suddenly revealed as unfounded and we have to re-interpret everything we’ve read up to that point. The treatment of class and sex is far more realistic than anything that either of those writers would have dared.
This takes the form of a journal kept by a young servant-girl working for a kindly doctor in late 19th-century London. The girl is naive and trusting and only gradually does the reader start to work out who the doctor is, and what is really going on. Without giving too much away, I can say that this is a sly and thoughtful “revisiting” of a classic text of the period that succeeds in generating new insights into a story that has become iconic. It brings a fresh psychoanalytical perspective to a text which has inspired many post-Freudian narratives in literature and film.
This fiendishly clever novel (astonishingly underrated) features a Home Office official in the London of the 1790s who investigates, for a deeply personal reason, a series of linked murders carried out by a monster who in our age would be called a serial killer. The author constructs a complex narrative that keeps the reader guessing right to the end with some ingenious surprises along the way. That’s more than enough to make an absorbing read, but the novel also evokes the slippery and ambiguous game of espionage and counter-espionage played between the British government and French anti-revolutionary exiles. The interplay between the political complexities of the time and the interests of the protagonist is gripping.
Another book that has not had the attention it deserves. It takes the central characters from Wilkie Collins’s ingenious The Woman in White, Walter and Marian, and has them investigate another mystery – the secret life of the painter Turner, who has recently died. A biography is about to be published that will destroy his reputation and Walter sets out to clear the name of his hero. As well as telling an engaging story, the author displays a sure-footed knowledge of the period. Not just the language but also the portrayal of the manners, the conventions, and the class-based nature of society all ring true.
The great delight of this book is the narrator’s voice. When Bessy starts work as a young maidservant in Scotland in 1863 her young mistress, Arabella, instructs her to keep a journal each day and let her read it. That is what the novel is and the exuberance and naivety of the girl charm the reader, who only gradually realises that Bessy is not wholly to be trusted. And Arabella has her own secrets as well. Why has she required Bessy to reveal her thoughts in writing? Soon each of them is spying on and deceiving the other in a relationship which becomes – apparently without their realising it – more than a little erotic. And the reader is in for a switchback ride of surprises and revelations – some of them pretty dark.
Another “revisiting” of a classic text. Think “two children, their distant guardian, and a governess”. No more hints. The young girl, Florence, tells a story which becomes increasingly incredible in more than one sense. Her language and assumptions are disturbingly unlike those of most twelve-year-olds. Like the other “variations on a classic text” I’ve chosen, this not only entertains in its own right but illuminates the work it is glancing off.
This impressive first novel compellingly imagines the lead-up to a real murder committed in 1842. In a sort of confession, the killer describes his gradual involvement in the shadowy world of perjury and betrayal organised by the Dublin police. I found it hard to decide if the novel was a study in the corruption of a fairly ordinary man in extreme circumstances or an account of the evolution of a psychopath. Either way, the horrible logic of the plot leads to an entirely plausible though surprising twist.
Forget about the movie. This is a masterpiece and could only work as a novel. It’s the Homeric story of a soldier trying to return to his wife and home after fighting in a war – here the American Civil War. And it’s also a moving love story which ends heartbreakingly. Like The Odyssey, it’s a series of episodes that would normally fragment a novel’s unity but each one is so powerful and mysterious and so much in tune with the dominant theme that it succeeds completely. A book that will resonate in the memory.
This big melodramatic novel is almost a parody of the Victorian novel, with its complex plot revolving around the traditional themes of disinheritance and usurpation. The embittered central character, Edward Glyver, starts by murdering a randomly chosen stranger just to prove that he can do it. He even less sympathetic after that. This is a clever novel but a very cold one.
We’re back in The Woman in White territory with another case of apparent mistaken identity and the consequent incarceration of a young woman in a madhouse. This time she speaks for herself and, plunged into her dislocated and disorienting world, readers have to decide for themselves what is the truth.