Chatto & Windus £17.99

Derby Day, By DJ Taylor

Dandies, ostlers and bounders...call the BBC

DJ Taylor is an aficionado of Victoriana – his 2006 novel Kept was a mystery steeped in that era's murky gloom, and he has written an acclaimed biography on Thackeray, whose life was as dramatic as any novel by him or Dickens.

In Derby Day, Taylor returns to Victorian intrigue and an England peopled by bounders, dandies, gentlemen and their ostensibly respectable ladyfolk, and the underworld of poverty that growls beneath this pristine surface. The story is about a number of characters whose fates ride on the Derby at Epsom.

A scheming charmer named Happerton woos Rebecca (cold and sharp in nature, in reference to Vanity Fair's manipulative Becky Sharp), the daughter of an elderly lawyer. Happerton has various means of coercing his targets into becoming indebted to him, and in this way acquires Tiberius, a horse much fancied for the Derby, from his unfortunate previous owner, Davenant. Various sub plots involving a motley crew of colourful characters, from a virtuous governess to dastardly criminals, flourish in the wings.

Taylor employs a knowing, wry tone in which he mirrors yet simultaneously parodies the formal, restrained style of the great writers of the time. His prose is immaculate, but the droll asides, arch comments and bemused commentary of the omniscient narrator inject sparkiness: a character "examined his fingers as if they were a row of saveloy sausages"; another ensconces himself "in the water closet parting company with the bad oyster". Taylor hams up the style (almost literally, with a French crook called Monsieur Jambon), creating an enjoyable ambience wherein the reader knows that the author has tongue lodged in cheek, but is nonetheless fascinated and propelled along by his momentum.

Taylor wears his research lightly but there is no doubt how much effort he has expended. Publications, writers (John Bull, Walter Scott), artists (Turner, Frith), prejudices and heinous crimes of the day (casual anti-Semitism, derogatory jibes against the Irish; the slashing of horses as in Julian Barnes's Arthur and George) decorate the action, so that the whole is as vivid as any BBC costume drama. These incidentals – polluted water from the street pump; pewter pots in taverns; smoky gentlemen's clubs; Charterhouse school; famous figures of the day; archaic terminology such as "ostler" (an inn stableman), even fabrics such as bombazine – create a richness that is accentuated by Taylor's way of opening most chapters with extracts from publications of the day, ranging from turf sheets to handbooks on "genteel behaviour". Only one anachronism struck me – it would have taken more than three days for The Times to reach Rome.

Strikingly, Taylor has constructed his story from real life – there was a racing horse called Tiberius; Scroop Hall, the Gothic pile in which Davenant lives, was described by Thackeray, and rainswept Lincoln by Dickens. The whole is an engaging drama – escapism of the highest standard.

Suggested Topics
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Thicke's video for 'Blurred Lines' has been criticised for condoning rape

Robin Thicke admits he didn't write 'Blurred Lines'

music
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Matt Damon as Jason Bourne in The Bourne Ultimatum (2007)

film
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

Review: Cilla, ITV TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars with Cillian Murphy in Peaky Blinders II

TV
Arts and Entertainment

art
Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

film
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West is on his 'Yeezus' tour at the moment

Music
Arts and Entertainment
Rob James-Collier, who plays under-butler Thomas Barrow, admitted to suffering sleepless nights over the Series 5 script

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence star in new film 'Serena'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Some might argue that a fleeting moment in the actor’s scintillating, silver-tongued company is worth every penny.

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Colin Firth stars as master magician Stanley Crawford in Woody Allen's 'Magic in the Moonlight'

film
Arts and Entertainment
U2 have released Songs of Innocence in partnership with Apple

musicBand have offered new record for free on iTunes
Arts and Entertainment
Brad Pitt stars in David Ayer's World War II drama Fury

film
Arts and Entertainment
Top hat: Pharrell Williams

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum star as undercover cops in 22 Jump Street

film
Arts and Entertainment
David Bowie is back with fresh music after last year's hit album The Next Day

music
Arts and Entertainment
Keith Richards is publishing 'Gus and Me: The Story of My Granddad and My First Guitar', a children's book about his introduction to music

music
Arts and Entertainment
Calvin Harris has generated £4m in royalties from the music platform

music
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

    A shot in the dark

    Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
    His life, the universe and everything

    His life, the universe and everything

    New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
    Reach for the skies

    Reach for the skies

    From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
    These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

    12 best hotel spas in the UK

    Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
    These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

    Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

    Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
    Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

    Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

    His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
    'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

    'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

    Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
    Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

    Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

    The Imitation Game, film review
    England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

    England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

    Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
    Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

    Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

    Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
    ‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

    ‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

    Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week