Books: Knowing your place

Valentine Cunningham finds the best sort of Victorian values alive and well, and flourishing on a Norwich council estate

by D J Taylor

Duckworth, pounds 15.99

The critic DJ Taylor produces lovely angry-young-fogy diatribes about modern British fiction: our shallowness, our limping shortage of such Victorian values as moral seriousness, toughly engaged social concerns and characters whose life-trajectories you can believe in. The novelist D J Taylor tries to live up to this untruckling programme with attractive vim. , his fourth novel, is his best go so far at playing trad while never once serving up the fictional equivalent of mouldy fig.

grips and engrosses very nicely indeed as it foxily coaxes two rakish progresses, an uncle's and a nephew's, into the light. These are deftly interlocked stories, of course, for we are happily settled into the Dickens and Bennett-Wells territory that Taylor and his people (old novel readers all) so openly admire.

George Chell - a fatherless boy from Norwich, holed up now in a bleak Suffolk hotel on the run from distressed investors - tells us of growing up on a rather dire council estate and in sink schools. George resists mother and other proley enemies of promise, gets out, and turns into a dodgy accountant in London. He falls into marriage in the gruesomely mealy- mouthed lower-middle class, and gets out of that as well by throwing his lot in with the spivvy but glam tycoon, and father-substitute, Uncle Ted.

The rise and fall of Ted's Chell Holdings, a City ramp of Maxwellian dimensions - though with even stronger touches of the great Victorian swindles featured by Dickens and Trollope - is what brings the freelance journalist Frances Eccles to Suffolk in the hope of ghosting Chell's stories into a confessional bestseller.

There's much in all this brisk plotting of fortunes made and lost that puts at the forefront of modern growing-up novels. For a start, Taylor's sense of place is so sharp: the West Earlham estate in the sullen social margins of Norwich; the locales of his accountancy apprenticeship in Dickens's London, around Doughty Street and Chancery Lane; and the windy Britten-esque flatlands where he has finally fetched up and is retelling his life.

Even more, though, Taylor brilliantly keeps up an assertive sense of how your place of birth places you for life, even in contemporary Britain. George and his uncle can escape from West Earlham, with its aproned sororities of sneerers against cleverness and its know-nothing, know-all patriarchs. They can become "great people", colossally rich, huge in the City, glad- handed by ministers, welcomed to the champers and strawberries of the landed toffocracy. But they still can't persuade the likes of Ekwall (George's queer, boozy gent of a mentor, with roots deep in old City cash) or Helena (George's short-term aristo girlfriend), or even George's in-laws from the prim suburbs, that they're not forever trespassing.

Get back to where you once belonged, is the general cry. The system is rife with social gamekeepers sternly patrolling their enclaves and enclosures. D H Lawrence, wryly expert on gamekeepers and social trespass, would have recognised in Taylor a fellow adept. He would also have approved the indignation of Taylor's class consciousness.

Not that the vexed social mappings of are ever glum: far from it. Uncle Ted is a loud rogue as loveable as any in H G Wells or V S Pritchett. The novel is a picaresque, with much comedy thrown in. It goes in for panto and farce in scenes such as the arrival of the Eastern Evening News at West Earlham's newsagent - mothers with prams lurking meaningfully by the bakers; collarless old men shuffling eagerly forward, sixpences flying.

Of course, the murks and blurs surrounding George's birth - fogs made all the denser by the closed-off privities of council-estate life, and his mother's devotion to putting up a respectable front and keeping your secrets to yourself - are cleared up with all the protracted cunning of a Victorian serial. Make 'em laugh, make 'em cry, make 'em wait, as Wilkie Collins put it.

True, as in every Victorian classic, you can see the identity of George's father coming from quite a long way off. But that's only par for the course - in a tribute to traditional ways from a novel that works through its programmatic tendencies to become as satisfying a read as anything around.