Kept, by D J Taylor

Victorian secrets and scandals
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

The 19th-century novel has had something of a renaissance in the past decade. On the surface, D J Taylor's Kept is a distinguished latecomer to the party. On another level, however, there are broad hints that everything may not be quite as straightforward as it seems. One of the book's two epigraphs is from Proust: "Beneath the signs there lay something of a different kind." Indeed there does.

The ingredients of the plot are suitably sensational for the period. In 1863, a Suffolk landowner, Henry Ireland, is killed in an apparent accident, leaving an embarrassed estate and a fragile widow. Isabel Ireland is the daughter of the late Mr Brotherton, "a literary man, it is true, but of a most superior kind". She is independently wealthy and mentally unstable.

After her husband's death, she is placed in the care of one of her trustees, James Dixey, a profoundly eccentric naturalist whose affairs are even more embarrassed than those of Mr Ireland. Dixey keeps her under restraint, as he keeps his specimens, living and dead, including a pack of ferocious hounds and a solitary wolf.

Meanwhile, in London, the sinister Mr Pardew plots and plans and collects money owed to him. Pardew deals in discounted bills and arranges for fraudulent cheques to pass through the banking system. He plans a great train robbery - the theft of a fortune in gold from the Paris mail train - while taking steps to ensure that he will be the beneficiary of Mrs Ireland's inheritance. He maintains a mistress in St John's Wood and considers murder an occasional necessity of business.

Pardew and Isabel are the two poles of the novel. They never meet. Between them lies a shifting cast of characters who slip in and out of the narrative. Isabel's former lover faces starvation and the attentions of a wolf in the Yukon. Her lawyer Mr Crabbe follows blindly where snobbery leads. Three of Dixey's servants are drawn into the imbroglio, and for two matters end badly, one on the streets and another transported to Tasmania. Mr Crawley the curate sees more of Isabel Ireland than he wishes. Her cousin Mr Carstairs feels he ought to do something, about Isabel, and life in general, but usually succeeds in doing nothing unless his mother does it for him. A professional poacher steals rarities to order; a bankrupt grocer disintegrates as his wife dies of consumption. Captain McTurk of Scotland Yard broods over the intricacies of the case.

D J Taylor's other books include a fine biography of Thackeray. He has a faultless ear for the varied nuances of mid-Victorian English, and this is one of the many strengths of Kept. He takes a wicked pleasure in creating a dense underlay of references, a blend of historical fact and other authors' fiction, which lies beneath his narrative and occasionally erupts into it.

Mr Brotherton and his family are clearly modelled on the Thackerays, and Thackeray's fictional universe interpenetrates Taylor's. Jack London is an obvious source for the Yukon section. The plot ingredients would be perfectly at home in a Wilkie Collins novel, though the structure and resolution would not.

George Eliot ruminates in her journal on the singular behaviour of Isabel Ireland at dinner. Trollope's Hiram's Hospital is transplanted from Barchester to Ely, from fiction to fact. Ely Cathedral, which lost the second of its two spires in 1801, acquires a new one, thereby moving it in the opposite direction from Hiram's Hospital, from fact to fiction.

The many descriptions of London have echoes of Dickens on one hand and Mayhew on the other. In other words, Taylor invites his readers to play the mutually enjoyable game of Spot The Source.

This clever and hugely readable novel constantly subverts its readers' expectations. It would be unfair to reveal the ending but it is fair to say that Taylor promises, tongue in cheek, one sort of novel and gives us quite another.

He gives due warning, too, in the other epigraph, which is from M R James. "Please to remember that I am a Victorian, and that the Victorian tree cannot but be expected to bear Victorian fruit." D J Taylor is from a different time, and his tree bears different fruit.

Andrew Taylor's latest novel is 'The American Boy' (HarperPerennial)