Tag Archives: Nineteenth century

Now We Shall Be Entirely Free by Andrew Miller: Love and war

Cover imageI have a history with Andrew Miller’s writing: I loved Ingenious Pain so much that I included it in my One-Hundred-Book Library and Pure came a close second. It’s not that his other novels haven’t been enjoyable but Ingenious Pain was so inventive in its premise and so beautifully executed that I’ve been left mildly disappointed by them. Having read Now We Shall Be Entirely Free, I’ve come to the conclusion he’s is at his best when writing historical fiction. This novel about a cavalry officer invalided out of the disastrous Peninsular War who finds himself unable to return to it sees Miller on top form.

Captain John Lacroix is delivered, unconscious, to his Somerset home in the winter of 1809. Nursed back to physical health by Nell, the servant who has known him all his life and to whom he occasionally blurts brief descriptions of the horrors he’s seen, he arranges a passage to Scotland through his brother-in-law. Assaulted and robbed of his money and his boots in Glasgow, Lacroix finds his way onto a supply boat heading for the Hebrides, putting ashore somewhat ignominiously astride the back of a cow. There he meets the veteran of another war and is taken in by three English siblings awaiting the leader of their utopian community. Cornelius prattles on, combing the peat bogs for relics while his sisters attend to more practical matters. Lacroix finds himself drawn to Emily whose sight is failing, accompanying her to Glasgow for the risky surgery she’s determined to undergo. Meanwhile, a ferocious English corporal accompanied by a Spanish officer edge ever closer to their goal: executing orders to dispatch the man Calley has told the authorities is responsible for a dreadful atrocity.

Miller’s novel is a consummate piece of storytelling, pulling the thread of suspense nicely taut by alternating Lacroix’s narrative with Calley and Medina’s chase. Themes of war and culpability are woven through the novel, explored in eloquent yet understated prose. Lacroix’s part in the events in Spain is quietly unfolded so that our sympathy has been engaged before we learn the extent of his involvement. There are many pleasing details to enjoy, sometimes laced with a surprising gentle humour, from Nell’s soft spot for Tom, which may well be reciprocated but will never be revealed, to Medina’s joy at finding a band of naked men cavorting in a river contrasted neatly with Calley’s sourness. Altogether a thoroughly absorbing novel, neatly avoiding the trite in its ambivalent ending. I was sorry not to see it on the Man Booker longlist.

Blasts from the Past: The Voyage of the Narwhal by Andrea Barrett (1998)

Cover imageThis is the latest in a series of occasional posts featuring books I read years ago about which I was wildly enthusiastic at the time, wanting to press a copy in as many hands as I could.

When I was in bookselling I knew that if a rep showed me a book on the Franklin expedition we were likely to be on to a winner. There seems to be an enduring interest in polar exploration – anything on Shackleton or Scott was also likely to be a sure-fire bestseller. There’s an air of romance about it: even though the expeditions were failures, they’re seen as magnificent failures. Andrea Barrett’s dramatic, vividly expressed novel, which follows Zeke Voorhees in his search for the remains of Franklin’s expedition, seemed to me to capture the spirit of the time and its overriding desire to extend the bounds of knowledge, either for its own sake or, in this case, to further secure Britain’s mercantile ambitions through the discovery of a new trading route.

Zeke sets off on his ill-judged voyage in 1855, ten years after Franklin, accompanied by his future brother-in-law Erasmus Darwin Wells, an amateur naturalist. As Zeke’s enthusiasm transforms itself into a lonely despotic command of the voyage, Erasmus becomes more and more uneasy about the outcome of the adventure. When Zeke strikes out on his own, Erasmus has no option but to try to guide the crew of the Narwhal – much depleted by the hardships of facing a winter ill prepared – to safety. On his return, he finds himself estranged from his sister who blames him for leaving Zeke behind, and derided by the public for the failure of his mission. When Zeke does reappear he brings with him two Eskimos, as the indigenous people were then known. Erasmus is at first delighted and then appalled by his plan to stage a lecture tour featuring the Eskimos as exhibits. What follows is heartrending.

Franklin and his crew’s disappearance remained a transfixing mystery for the public with many expeditions launched in search of their remains. In 2014 the Victoria Strait Expedition announced that it had found Erebus, one of the Franklin’s two ships, an announcement confirmed by the Canadian Prime Minster in Parliament.

 What about you, any blasts from the past you’d like to share?

The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry: A surefire prize winner

Cover imageRegular readers may have gathered by now how I feel about Twitter hype. All too often it leads to disappointment. Having already read and admired After Me Comes the Flood, though, it seemed likely that at least some of the love being poured on Sara Perry’s second novel was entirely genuine, and so it proved to be. It’s now joined the select band of the best books I’ve read in 2016. Set in 1885, it’s the tale of a small group of people each of whom comes to their own conclusions about a winged serpent, first seen in 1669 and now thought to be roaming the marshes around the village of Aldwinter.

On New Year’s Eve, a young man – somewhat the worse for wear – staggers home from the pub and wonders about taking a dip in the Blackwater River. Next morning, he’s found with his head twisted round a hundred and eighty degrees, drowned in the mud. Soon rumours circulate about the Essex Serpent, back stalking the marshes and wreaking havoc, killing a goat here, drowning another young man there. Will Ransome, the local parson, refuses to preach from the pulpit about this monstrous apparition, despite the increasing collective hysteria taking hold of his congregation. A man of faith, he’s well acquainted with current theories of science and rationality, convinced there’s a perfectly logical explanation. To preach about it would be to taint God with superstition. In London, the newly widowed Cora Seagrove hears of the serpent and thinks it may be a ‘living fossil’. Liberated from the constant cruelty of her husband she decides to take her son and his nanny – Cora’s dear companion – to Colchester where she bumps into old friends who suggest she stays with the Ransome family in Aldwinter. Unbeknownst to her, Cora has already met Will, although hardly in the best of circumstances. When they meet again, it’s as if there’s a flash of understanding between them. So begins a passionate friendship in which these two will debate all manner of things.

The Essex Serpent is a novel of ideas all wrapped up in a stonkingly good bit of storytelling and gorgeously vivid prose. All those nineteenth-century themes are present, correct and deftly woven in: science, religion, medical advance, philanthropy, education and above all, women’s place in society. Distant echoes of our own world sound throughout – veterans of another Afghan war on London’s streets, a chasm between the rich and the poor. Perry’s characters are vividly drawn: Cora is a triumph with her constantly questing curiosity, her openness to the world, uncaring about what others think of her tramping across the marshes in her mannish clothes. The relationship between Cora and Will could easily have descended into melodrama but Perry is far too clever for that, neatly avoiding a clichéd ending. The opening chapter with its repetition of ‘time’ calling to mind ‘fog’ in Bleak House feels like a nod to Dickens as do several characters – Charles Ambrose, the rich benefactor who assuages his guilt but has no wish to sully his hands with the poor, and Thomas Taylor, the beggar who carefully composes his face so as to best rook passers-by – but while comparisons with Dickens seem apt there’s nothing of the caricature about Perry’s well-rounded characters, nothing simplified about the ideas Will and Cora debate. It’s hard not to gush about this novel. It’s a glittering, thought-provoking and marvellous piece of fiction. Surely impossible for it not to be garlanded with prizes.

Signs for Lost Children by Sarah Moss: What Ally and Tom did next

Cover imageSarah Moss’s excellent Bodies of Light appeared on the Wellcome Trust Book Prize shortlist for its theme of nineteenth century women in medicine earlier this year. Signs for Lost Children is its sequel, picking up Ally and Tom’s story from where Bodies of Light left off. Newly married, they face separation as Ally practices as a doctor at Truro’s asylum – albeit unpaid – and Tom travels to Japan to advise on building lighthouses.

The novel opens with Ally and Tom very much in love. Ally knows that Tom must fulfil his six-month assignment in Japan but dreads a separation made longer by both the voyage and a lucrative commission to seek out Japanese artefacts for a local collector. Ally takes up her post at the Truro asylum, insulted and spurned by the nurses who want no truck with a female doctor, particularly one who thinks that kindness and empathy will help the inmates rather than the rough often brutal treatment they dispense. Lonely, still mourning the sister she believes drowned nine years ago, Ally gives in to her mother’s cajoling, judgemental demands to put her skills to better use in Manchester, briefly suffering a relapse in her own mental health before returning to Cornwall where she is made a surprising offer. Meanwhile, Tom’s loneliness is exacerbated by plunging into a culture of which he knows nothing. Slowly, he comes to understand the beauty of this endlessly puzzling country, opening himself to what had at first seemed its strange customs and forging a friendship with the man assigned as his guide. As the six months come to an end he can hardly bear to leave, no longer longing for home or for Ally, the wife he hardly remembers after such a short time together. These two must find a way back to each other, or lead separate lives.

Moss demonstrates the same eye for a striking phrase in Signs for Lost Children as she did in Bodies of Light: one of the Truro inmates displays ‘breasts flat as empty socks’; Tom’s guide is ‘somehow clothed in self-possession’ despite his nakedness in the communal baths. Her descriptions of the Japanese netsuke Tom buys are exquisite. There are many references to Bodies of Light but so subtly done that they act as little memory joggers for those of us who’ve read it, effortlessly filling out the details of Ally’s troubled early life for those who haven’t. It’s a book which asks big questions, many of which are as relevant now as they were in Ally’s time: What is madness? How does it come about and how should we recognise and treat it? It also has profound points to make about human behaviour and morality: ‘Our labour and our moral worth are not the same thing, for what price kindness?’ thinks Ally of her mother who ceaselessly works for the poor but shows neither affection nor concern for her own daughter, dismissing her ‘nervous complaints’ as self-indulgence. Tom’s and Ally’s stories are told in separate alternating narratives – both equally engrossing – delicately intermeshed by the couple’s longing for each other and the gradual fading of that yearning. It’s a beautifully executed novel, every bit as good as Bodies of Light.

I still haven’t got around to Night Waking in which May, Ally’s sister, first made her appearance in a collection of letters found two hundred years after her death. May trained as a nurse, taking up a position on the Hebridean island of Colsay where she hoped to introduce modern midwifery practices but as readers of Bodies of Light will know, she was also determined to escape her puritanical mother and live life on her own terms. Another book which came to mind while reading Signs for Lost Children is Elaine Showalter’s The Female Malady, a history of the treatment of mental illness in women. It’s an uncomfortable, distressing read at times but complements Ally’s experience well for those who’d like to learn more.

Just one more thing to say in what has become a rather long and rambling post: Hats off to the jacket designers. Just as the original cover for Bodies of Light fitted Ally’s father’s arts and crafts work beautifully, so this one is a lovely echo of Tom’s Japanese experience. It’s a thing of delicate beauty.