It’s irrelevant, I know, but I can’t help wondering what it was like living with D. J. Taylor while he was writing this opus. It’s so steeped in Victoriana and (as Taylor acknowledges) in the fictional worlds of Dickens, George Eliot, Thackeray, Trollope and co. and it’s so big that I picture him emerging into the 21st century maybe just once a week, on a Sunday.
If you want to opt out of the 2lst century and hark back (oh, it’s catching!) to an era of gas lamps and legal clerks scuttling about the grimy streets of London, while the squire sits in his country estate with a stuffed bear in his study and a statutory mad woman in his attic, then this is for you.
Taylor is a biographer as well as a novelist and in some ways Kept feels like an offshoot of his biography of Thackeray. Isabel, the mad woman in the attic, suggests Thackeray’s wife Isabella who after the death of her third child went mad and was ‘put away’. Real and fictional characters as well as real and fictional events are brilliantly intertwined in this tale of mystery and chicanery. This, plus Taylor’s extensive knowledge of the period, his ability to evoke atmosphere and convey a vivid sense of place — encompassing the slums of London, the murky fens of Norfolk, the Scottish lochs and the Yukon wilds — combine to give the novel an almost dizzy authenticity. One is glad of the notes at the back that help to settle what is fact from fiction. Even so, I was driven to check the Cornhill Magazine of 1862 to see if Thackeray really had written A Little Tour through the Counties of East Anglia or if this was pastiche. It is.
Two deaths — that of the landowner Henry Ireland (Isabel’s husband) and James Dixey, a celebrated naturalist (he of the stuffed bear and Isabel’s keeper) — begin the mystery. Why and how did they die? Into this is woven a complex debt scam that spreads a web of intrigue round all the characters. The spider at the centre of the web is Mr Pardew, an exceptionally nasty character who may or may not have murdered his partner and whose greed leads him to execute the Great Train Robbery of 1855 (the event, though not the perpetrator, being real).
The title, Kept, gathers more and more associations as the book goes on. Isabel is kept in the sense of confined while Dixey is the keeper not only of Isabel but of rare birds’ eggs, alarming dogs and a wolf. A number of minor characters are kept in Pardew’s power by poverty, fear or greed. Apart from Isabel in her attic, there are several kept women — Esther, the maid who becomes a mistress to William, former footman to Dixey and now one of Pardew’s rogues, and Pardew’s own kept then abandoned mistress, Jemima. On a more pyschological level, there are others — such as the lawyer nicely named Crabbe — kept in Pardew’s thrall by snobbery.
And the reader, of course is ‘kept’ in suspense. Taylor has obviously taken great delight in constructing this mystery and it’s impressively done. Yet I can’t help feeling I’d prefer to read Dickens or indeed any one of the real Victorian novelists.