The Street Philosopher, By Matthew Plampin
Is Crimea-lit set to be the next big trend?
Sunday 08 March 2009
Is the Crimean War becoming a fashionable setting for fiction? In 2007, Katherine McMahon's The Rose of Sebastopol employed the battlefield hospitals of Balaclava as a backdrop to its romantic drama, achieving remarkable commercial success. Now Matthew Plampin's debut novel, The Street Philosopher, ventures deeper into the dark heart of the conflict. It ambitiously dramatises many of the aspects of the British Army's Crimean adventure that make it stand out as the first modern conflict: the rapid advances in weapons and technology; the steady flow of women from Britain to nurse in army, naval, and civilian hospitals; and the development of war reportage fed by public demand for eyewitness accounts of battle scenes.
War reporting is central to Plampin's unfolding plot. Thomas Kitson, the hero, arrives in Crimea in the autumn of 1854, shortly before the Battle of Alma. Kitson has abandoned a promising career in art criticism to become a war correspondent on the London Courier (a pale imitation of the Illustrated London News). Accompanying him, on the trail of Lord Raglan's ill-fated battalions, are his boss Richard Cracknell, a colourful, drink-sodden, Irish-born reporter of the old school, and Robert Styles, a sensitive young illustrator, one of the band of commissioned artists following the British Army to war, who is ill-prepared for the horrors he has to face.
Plampin's historical research is impressive, as is his command of detail. The topography of the battlefield has never been conveyed with such brutal realism, nor the rigours of a Crimean winter and their impact on the suffering troops described so tellingly. One quickly becomes caught up in a narrative that never falters, but moves forward fluently and with great style. Scattered here and there are real-life characters – Russell of The Times is glimpsed from a distance and Mary Seacole, "the Creole with the tea-cup", has a more prominent role – while Madeleine Boyce, an officer's wife, owes not a little to the vivacious Mrs Duberly and her diary (though this doesn't prevent her from coming to a sticky end).
The story is framed by a complex mechanism, moving backwards and forwards from Crimea in 1854-1855 to scenes set in Manchester, a year after the war has ended. Here we are reintroduced to Kitson, who has become a "street philosopher", a society writer reporting on the gossip of the day. But his wartime past threatens to scupper his budding relationship with the widowed daughter of a corrupt factory owner.
Disappointingly, the dénouement, centring on a painting looted from a Crimean house and shown at the Art Treasures Exhibition opened by Queen Victoria, can't bear the weight of the promise set up by the earlier, compelling sections. Perhaps in his next novel, Plampin will worry less about the twist and turns of plot, and concentrate on developing his true gift of descriptive power.
TV review Nick Hewer, the man whose eyebrows speak a thousand words, is set to leave The Apprentice
Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites
TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Nigel Farage: Me vs Russell Brand on Question Time – he's got the chest hair but where are his ideas?
- 2 Harry Potter fans can apply to the Hogwarts-inspired College of Wizardry
- 3 Jessica Chambers: 19-year-old woman 'doused with lighter fluid and burned alive' in the US
- 4 Russell Brand calls Nigel Farage 'poundshop Enoch Powell' in BBC Question Time debate
- 5 Orange Wednesdays are no more
Peter Lik: The self-proclaimed 'fine-art photographer' whose work sells for millions
The best underrated Christmas movies from Love, Actually to While You Were Sleeping
Grace Dent on TV: The Lost Honour of Christopher Jefferies was a beautifully shot, immensely considered drama
The Lost Honour of Christopher Jefferies, review: Jason Watkins is brilliant, but real victim Joanna Yeates is reduced to a footnote
Marilyn Manson denies involvement in shocking Lana Del Rey rape video
Disgruntled RBS worker writes hilarious open letter to Russell Brand after anti-capitalist publicity stunt leaves him hungry
Shock poll shows voters believe Ukip is to the left of the Tories
Nigel Farage's approval rating hits 'record low' as popularity suffers in wake of Ukip sex scandal
Nigel Farage defends Kerry Smith 'ch***y' comment: 'If you are going for a Chinese, what do you say you’re going for?'
Ukip candidate jokes about 'shooting peasants' in racist and homophobic rant
Pakistan school attack live: Taliban kill at least 132 children in 'horrifying' massacre