‘Reviewers,’ laments the Dr Cake of Andrew Motion’s title, ‘they are devils. Devils. I have seen good men, good authors, broken by their deprecations. The worst of it is their presumption in supposing that those they chastise do not know their own faults, and admonish themselves with a ferocity others can only imagine.’ From a Laureate whose (admittedly rotten) recent poems have been kicked gleefully to death in the public prints, this has the ring of something profoundly felt. There’s a later, rueful allusion to the superiority of the young Wordsworth over the old Wordsworth – ‘the Laureate who now preaches at us’.
There is another reason to be wary of approaching this novel as a reviewer: how to do so without giving away the central surprise in the plot? It steals up on you – and on the narrator – so unexpectedly, and so delightingly, that . . . well, I’m sorry, I’ve thought about it, and I’m afraid there simply isn’t a way to write about The Invention of Dr Cake without giving it away.
Dr Cake is John Keats. The conceit of Motion’s cleverly wrought novel is that Keats secretly survived the consumption which the world believed killed him in Rome, and returned to England under an assumed name to live a life of anonymous philanthropy, practising medicine in a rural backwater. His identity, right at the end of his life, is discovered by another doctor, William Tabor, who visits him while compiling a survey into the health of the rural poor. The book – hedged with a witty pseudo-scholarly preface from Motion – purports to assemble published and unpublished reminiscences of Dr Cake found among Tabor’s papers. The author – at home in this period – has produced an easeful, subtle and absorbing pastiche.