Having finished researching all things Venetian for the third of my MATCHES MADE IN SCANDAL series, HIS RAGS TO RICHES CONTESSA (which isn’t out until November, so I’ll forego any shameless plugging!), I’ve treated myself to devouring a few of my vast collection of unread history books simply for the pleasure or reading. For pleasure rather than business, so to speak.
First up was Claire Tomalin’s excellent biography, Charles Dickens, A Life. I must confess to having read a few choice cuts of Dickens’s oeuvre, with mixed feelings. He’s sentimental to the point of mawkishness, he can’t do women, and he’s the master of implausible coincidence. That said, I’ve thoroughly enjoyed some television adaptations, and actually I’ve always felt that if he was writing now, tv melodrama would be the perfect medium for him.
I’m a shallow creature sometimes, I like shoes and bags and dresses and the type of biography that peers into dark corners and dark psyches. Having read everything else Claire Tomalin has written and loved every one, including her biography of Dickens’s best kept secret, his mistress Ellen Ternan (The Invisible Woman) I knew I wouldn’t be disappointed.
And I wasn’t. Tomalin has the ability to make the most objectionable subjects fascinating, to even make some aspects of them empathetic, and that’s exactly what she has done with Dickens. He was without doubt a genius, and a hard-working one at that. He was a ‘man’s man’ who preferred the intellectual company of men, confided in men, found his deepest friendships with men, though ironically, his eldest son aside, it was his daughters he preferred to his sons. He was the type of man whom people revered, whom his friends loved, who engendered a deep devotion that blinded them to his faults. The type of man who displayed a very different character at home and towards his family, for he could wish his son dead, disown his own brothers and children – forever. A sentimental man fond of crocodile tears who didn’t attend several of his children’s weddings, and who, when he separated from his wife, took the you’re for me or agin me attitude with everyone. He was loathsome, yet he was very much adored. And then there is Nelly (Ellen) Ternan. who was kept hidden away for decades and whose relationship with Dickens even now causes controversy. Was she forced into a sexual relationship with him that she didn’t want? Was it even sexual? Did she love him or manipulate him? So many unanswered questions that if they could be resolved would give us yet another version of Dickens to debate. I absolutely loved this biography, even though I still don’t feel the love for Dickens the man.
Next off my non-fiction TBR pile was Inconvenient People: Lunacy, Liberty and the Mad Doctors in Victorian England by Sarah Wise. I think I bought this when toying with the idea of writing a story about a woman incarcerated for having an affaire or an illegitimate baby, but (so far) that is one story I’ve not yet told. This book, which is a series of case studies, debunks the myth that most of the victims of the lunacy laws were such women. It’s true, many, many women who did not conform to the Victorian ideal of womanhood were sent to the asylum – women who refused to marry, who stood up for themselves, who were socialists or feminists – but usually there was another more basic reason for having them declared mad. Money, it seems, was at the root of a huge number of the more controversial case studies in this book, cases of relatives wanting to protect their inheritance from a new spouse, wanting to take over businesses, wanting to prevent a person spending their own wealth on things they didn’t approve of. What was shocking was how incredibly difficult it was to get out once you were locked up, and how easy it was to abuse the system to get people certified in the first place. Greed made many an alienist doctor more than happy to turn a blind eye to dubious cases, if the person in question was headed towards his asylum. Private asylums were big business, and the medical profession were at the forefront of protecting their interests by blocking any changes to the law which might make it easier for their patients to secure release!
I do love connections between books I’m reading. Dickens crops up in Sarah Wise’s book as the correspondent of one of the lunacy inspectors – discussing, in somewhat oblique terms, whether his wife Catherine could be conveniently certified, thus sparing him the comparatively lesser shame of a divorce. One of Dickens’s mates, the writer Edward Bulwer Lytton, did go so far as to try to have his ‘mad’ wife locked up, a feat that he’s now more famous for than his writing.
Another of Dickens’s friends was the famous dandy, Alfred D’Orsay. I read more than I cared to know about D’Orsay in Nick Foulkes’s Scandalous Society: Passion and Celebrity in the Nineteenth Century. A man of great beauty and impressive physique, was the count, with a highly inflated ego to match and a profligate tendency that bore no relationship to his income. From an early age he was feted and adored, imbuing him with the unshakeable belief that he was a man of stature rather than simply a celebrity. His parents, perhaps seeing as Alfred did not, that he would never make much of himself, sold him off to Lord and Lady Blessington on the understanding that at some point he’d marry one or other of his lordship’s daughters (no-one seemed to care which) and would be given a significant income as part of the deal, and even more when Blessington popped his clogs. In the meantime, D’Orsay was to carry on as lover of both his lordship and her ladyship, hang out with them on their extended European tour, and help them to spend as much money as possible.
D’Orsay was not a likeable man, yet many seemed to have become besotted with him, for all that, not least the Blessingtons. Their daughter Harriet, on the other hand, whom d’Orsay married when she was sixteen, never did grow to be able to tolerate her husband, perhaps not surprisingly since he refused to have sex with her, despite the fact (or perhaps because of it) that he was having sex with her father and step-mother. Harriet left d’Orsay not long after their marriage was eventually consummated – so presumably it wasn’t worth the wait! When Lord Blessington died, D’Orsay and Lady Blessington continued to spend, spend, spend, and other (male) lovers came and went – or words to that effect, since there seems to have been some dispute by this time about whether D’Orsay was capable. And by this time I had long lost interest. Nick Foulkes tried hard not to mimic the gossipy person that was his subject. He’s scrupulous and not scurrilous, when I think what was needed was a bit more scurrilousness (or should that be scurrilousosity?). I would happily eschew any further encounter with Count D’Orsay, but sadly he knew so many famous people that I fear I will be disappointed.
And so to fiction, which this month has turned up a few gems, after a dodgy few reads earlier in March. I bought The Silent Companions by Laura Purcell after reading a review of it on Louise Marley’s blog. A spooky tale of a widow forced to live in her dead husband’s run-down house, where a series of odd wooden life-size statues are determined to scare the living daylights out of her. This was a creepy Gothic story, with lots of layers, undertones of Victorian prejudice and attitudes to women that gave it an edge, but what it was overall was a really fab page turner. I wouldn’t go so far as to say it terrified me, but it did gave me a few shivers.
The Broken Girls by Simone St James on the other hand, which I bought after reading Wendy Superlibrarian’s rave review, completely freaked me out. This was an odd mix, part detective story, part romance, a bit of history and a few very believable ghosts thrown in for good measure. I’m not going to give away the plot. Suffice to say it was a classic page turner which kept me guessing right up until the last moment. Unusually, I found the ending very satisfying, and I was glad that the supernatural element of the story wasn’t resolved. What’s more, the back story really played well on the history of the time, and I completely bought it. I do hope this is the first in a series.
From ghosts to alchemists and apothecaries now. Beloved Poison by E S Thomson is, I’m delighted to see, the first in a series. Jem is a woman playing a man who is an apothecary who supplies medicines to one of London’s biggest and oldest hospitals. Set in the 1840s at a time when medicine was casting off the old ideas of humours, blistering, bleeding and cupping, this is also a murder mystery, with Jem and her architect side-kick forced to become sleuths for reasons that I won’t reveal. There’s a colourful cast of characters. There’s history. There’s a filthy, reeking city whose graveyards are over-flowing, and whose inhabitants (or the city, not the graveyards, that is) are barely able to scratch a living. There’s lots of blood and guts. It also features one of my all-time favourite lines: ‘One cannot judge a man by the contents of his nostrils.’ And there’s Jem with all her hang-ups and inhibitions. All of it told at a cracking pace. Another that I couldn’t put down.
Finally to another female trying to make her way in the man’s world of science, Katherine McMahon’s The Alchemist’s Daughter. If you’re new to this author, you are so lucky! She writes in so many varied periods of history: The Season of Light is set during the French Revolution; The Rose of Sebastopol backdrop is the Crimean War; and The Crimson Rooms post-1918. For The Alchemist’s Daughter we are transported to the early Eighteenth Century. At the centre of the story is Emilie, the product of her father’s experiment to raise her as a ‘pure’ alchemist to carry on his work. Cut off from the world, she is a first-class natural philosopher with absolutely no concept of basic things, like how to make choices, how to understand the consequences of her father’s lifestyle on the people who live on his estates, no idea even that she is a beauty. Naturally, Emilie falls hook line and sinker for the first man who comes her way, and naturally he’s a baddy! The rest of the story is about Emilie’s voyage of discovery. Who is she? What is her past? Who is her husband? Her life unravels, as does that of her tenants, as does her tender relationship with the local priest, whom she quickly realises ought to have been the love of her life. The loss of her child makes her slightly mad. She turns to alchemy in a desperate attempt to restore the world as it once was.
This is a brilliant story, and a deeply moving one. It’s a story that makes you angry, watching Emilie’s vain, flighty husband destroy so many lives while she is powerless to stop him, and it makes you frustrated too, because McMahon keeps Emilie true to her upbringing. There is no lion emerging from the frail feminine vessel, she doesn’t roll her sleeves up and fight patriarchal power on its own terms – she turns to the one weapon she has, alchemy, and reading this is even harder, because of course we know it’s not a weapon at all. Or is it?
So all in all, I’ve had an excellent month’s reading. What about you, have you read any of these books? What did you think of them? You can follow what I’m reading and all my reviews over on my Goodreads page. And I’m always looking for other recommendations, so please do feel free to suggest some of your own favourite reads.