Friday, 3 February 2012
Lynn Shepherd: Tom-All-Alone's, 'Dickens but darker' - review and guest-post
REVISITING DICKENS' LONDON - AND DISCOVERING ANOTHER
So how did I do it? Lots of research, of course, that goes without saying, but there was one source of information that I used more than any other. In fact it became almost as important in the structure of my story as Bleak House itself. Henry Mayhew's London Labour and the London Poor is to Victorian non-fiction what Bleak House is to fiction - Neil Gaiman has said it's 'like a big mad Dickens novel that just keeps going'. It's certainly an immense and seething panorama of the noisy, filthy, crowded streets - coster barrows, coffee-stalls, street performers, animal dealers, 'toasting-fork makers, pin-makers, engravers, tobacco-stopper makers, stocking-weavers, cabbage-net makers, night-cap knitters, doll-dress-knitters, leather brace and garter makers, and glass-blowers'.
Mayhew conducted thousands of interviews with the London poor and gives many of these conversations virtually verbatim, making his book the closest thing we have to a documentary account of how people really lived in the middle of the 19th century. if you haven't read it, I really recommend it - his is a cast of unforgettable real characters, talking in their own words. Reading Mayhew is like walking with him side by side, listening to what he hears, and seeing what he sees - and in fact I have my young detective, Charles Maddox, do exactly that in one episode in Tom-All-alone's when I send him into a pub on the City Road to witness the same rat-killing Myahew himself describes, on what - with a little artistic license - I imagine to be the very night Mayhew was there.
The other marvellous thing about Mayhew is that he tells us things Dickens only hints at. Dickens may describe urchins scavenging in the mud, but it's Mayhew who tells us exactly what it is these 'pure-finders' are collecting (dog excrement, for use in tanning, if you're interested). And Dickens may talk, somewhat disingenuously, about the mud in the streets, 'which is made of nobody knows what and collects about us nobody knows whence or how', but it's Mayhew who makes it clear that what 'the sewers in many parts of our metropolis ... remove at low water they regularly bring back at high water to the very doors of the houses whence they carried it.' The contents of one's lavatory, in other words, were regularly to be found collecting about one's doorstep too. Indeed as late as 1829 a mother and baby died when they fell through their rotten privy floor and drowned beneath it in their own cesspool.
One of the greatest delights in writing Tom-All-Alone's was that it allowed me not just to revisit Dickens' city, but to discover Mayhew's as well. And I found, in doing so, that Victorian London had not just one 'genius of the place', but two.
Tom-All-Alone's was published yesterday by Corsair and will be published in America in May, under the title The Solitary House. Both these titles were, by the way, possible titles Dickens considered for Bleak House. The novel offers a certain smug pleasure for those who can spot the literary references - and I'm looking forward to the next in the series, clues to which are planted in the final pages! Bleak House is my favourite Dickens novel, so it was a joy to read a story with echoes - and even a kind of ventriloquism, capturing entirely the tone, voice and bearing of such characters as the monstrously chilling Edward Tulkinghorn and the politely controlling Inspector Bucket, who plays his cards always so close to his chest. Some chapters are written in the voice of 'Hester' - as sentimentally modest and irritatingly 'little me' as Esther Summerson herself. If this is a 'tribute novel', it's of the highest order. It offers more, too, than literary ventriloquism: I was moved by Lynn's depiction of the relationship between Charles and his uncle, a man with a once razor-sharp mind sinking into dementia. The pathos and frustrations of scenes where the old man tries to keep the shadows from encroaching as he descends into panic and aggression, were powerfully realised.
If you're a Dickens fan, if you like Sarah Waters and Jane Harris, if you enjoyed Michel Faber's The Crimson Petal and the White, you'll love this. Tom-All-Alone's is available here and Lynn's website is here. Murder at Mansfield Park is currently available on Kindle for 99p here.