Monday, March 29, 2010

Silent as the Grave

Somewhere in the grey area between Philip Pullman’s Sally Lockhart mysteries, the serial mysteries of Anne Perry (featuring the husband and wife investigative team), and the team of Lady Julia Grey and Nicholas Brisbane in Silent in the Grave, you might get an accurate picture of Victorian London. Each tackles a slightly different social milieu, and the latter two are practically seething with every kind of juicy nineteenth century scandal and perversion you could imagine. While Pullman’s are in my opinion the most well-written, I can’t deny the others have an uncanny appeal.

Silent as the Grave is, at 500 pages, too long, even for a debut novel. It’s hampered by a very slow beginning, and I can’t imagine Deanna Raybourn’s editor would let her get away with the first fifty pages—in my opinion, they could be lopped off and the book would be much more of a success. Once it gets going, however, the heroine and narrator Julia is a rather endearing combination of the well-intentioned but stupid and a somewhat keen-witted protagonist, with compassionate tendencies. Sherlock Holmes, she is not, nor is her cohort, Nicholas Brisbane, with any pretensions to official sleuth status. But the sensation that is crammed into the novel! Sapphic love! Bare-chested knuckle fights in a Gypsy camp on Hampstead Heath! Absinthe! The second sight! Prostitutes of both sexes! Aristocrats with syphilis! Anti-Semite doctors! Arsenic-wielding laundresses! A fresh-faced sixty-year-old French courtesan who reminds me rather strongly of Mrs Finn in The Pallisers. Cross-dressing, compassionate medical students, Tower ravens, and the hint of Hungary!

The first thing that struck me about Julia—besides the somewhat obvious allusion to the unconventional Marches in Little Women by virtue of her maiden name being March—was her modern-ness. She flinches at the thought of what’s conventional to Victorians and what we, too, being modern, would flinch from. However, this quality fades somewhat as you get further into the novel, and the period trappings are allowed to speak for themselves, rather than be noted with a wink. Silent in the Grave at first reminded me of The Devil’s Protection, an entertaining but transparent Regency romance that more or less inspired Between Tyrants and Slaves, a juvenile creation of my own. Mostly the connection was made through the Byronic qualities of both the male leads in these stories, and though Julia (and by extension, Raybourn), was more mature about her attraction to Brisbane than Geneva was to What’s-his-Name in The Devil’s Protection, the inevitable conclusion is drawn. To Raybourn’s credit, she subverts expectations by the end of the book, of course quite rightly encouraging readers to go on to the sequel.
Julia’s multitude of relatives, introduction to whom takes up the first part of the book, is designed for verisimilitude, but I found many of them quite boring. They improve, but it’s difficult to give them much depth when there is Julia, Brisbane, and the mystery to discover. As Morag, Julia’s reformed prostitute lady’s maid, remarks, it’s hard to feel too much sympathy for Julia, with her money, status, title, family, youth, beauty, and good health—that is, until the twist at the end, which is the finest part of the book (I have to confess I had strong suspicions, confirmed, about the murderer, which is seldom the case when I read these things). (“But whether Julia to the task was equal / is that which must be mentioned in the sequel,” she quotes from Byron, in epigraphs that are very Victorian but quite annoying, frankly, I must remember not to do such a thing in my own work!)

Speaking of my own work, Brisbane in many senses brought to mind my own long-discarded novel, The Romani Cinderella. I was pleased that Raybourn had done her research regarding Gypsies as they play a large role in the book (interestingly enough, Julia catches Brisbane at a moment of indiscretion when he is delirious and half-dreaming, a device I have used many times in fiction). I wondered if maybe Brisbane was also influenced by Erik from Phantom by Susan Kay, and without adding too many spoilers, Julia doesn’t make the explicit comparison with Heathcliff, but Raybourn, by mentioning Julia’s fondness for Wuthering Heights, does.

With no disrespect, and though I have an affection for this book, it did hearten me to an extent, because it reminded me, as I have said, of my own (unpublished) work and suggested that there might yet be hope for me.

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