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.