D. J. Taylor’s Derby Day

Derby Day Taylor AmericanI recently finished D. J. Taylor’s historical novel, Derby Day, which was nominated for the Man Booker Prize in 2011.

Set in Victorian England, this brilliant novel details the double dealings and crimes revolving around a horse favored for the Epsom Derby.

It is not a horse book; it is about the human beings involved with the horse, Tiberius.

Taylor deftly weaves history into a breakneck, thrilling narrative about an unsuitable marriage, theft, discounted bills, forgeries, bets, a surprisingly detailed jewel heist, and the horse race.  The moments of comedy are almost equal to the moments of suspense, and there are many allusions to Dickens’ Bleak House, Thackeray’s Vanity Fair, and other Victorian novels.

Taylor’s graceful style and irresistible, if crooked, characters make this intricately-plotted novel unique.

Among the more respectable characters is Rebecca Gresham (whom Taylor compares to Becky Sharp), an impassive woman whose aspirations differ from those of her dull social circle, and who is determined to marry George Happerton, a man of mysterious origins. The charming Happerton has some money, whether from speculation or the racetrack.  Rebecca’s father, Mr. Gresham, a well-to-do lawyer, is suspicious of him.

Taylor writes long, elegant paragraphs.  Here is an excerpt from a paragraph in which he describes the relationship of Rebecca and her father.

Mr. Gresham and his daughter fell into that category of people whose want of sympathy is made yet more flagrant by their inability to disguise it. They were not at ease with each other, and the civilities of the breakfast table only fuelled their displeasure. And so Mr. Gresham read what The Times had to say about Mr. Gladstone’s disposition of his Cabinet, and Miss Gresham spread marmalade on a fragment of toast and snapped at it crossly as if she thought it might get away from her, and neither of them, in the matter of temperamental unbending would give an inch.

There are many surprises in this novel.  After Happerton and Rebecca marry, he admits he does not understand her, and is almost shocked when she volunteers to help him acquire Tiberius.  “There was something in her tone that suggested she might be his ally, that she was not averse to her father’s money being spent–the idea of its being lent was a polite fiction–on a horse.”

And there are other memorable characters:  Captain Raff, a comical, if sleazy, friend runs errands for Mr. Happerton:  the two buy up the discounted bills (of debts) of Mr. Davenant, owner of Tiberius, to get the horse (and his house).  Mr. Davenant broods in Lincolnshire, while his daughter, Evie, an albino girl with what we would now call an “intellectual disability,” contributes to the gloomy atmosphere.  Her new governess, Miss Ellington, tells her imaginative stories, but eventually has to give up trying to teach Evie to read.  Mr. Pardew, a burglar and safe-cracker, is one of Taylor’s most vivid characters, and, oddly, I am rooting for him throughout the book, even though he is not the guy you’d want to live next door to.  And then there is Captain McTurk, a brilliant policeman, perhaps a little like Mr. Bucket in Bleak House.

I am not always keen on historical novels, but I also very much enjoyed Taylor’s The Windsor Faction, a counter-factual history in which Edward VIII does not abdicate because Wallis Simpson dies.  Taylor is an exceptionally skillful writer, and I see why Derby Day was a contender for the Booker.

It makes you want to bet on a horse.  I like the races:  Golden Soul, “my” horse, came in second at the Kentucky Derby last year.

Taylor is also a critic and biographer, and won the Whitbread Biography Award for his biography of George Orwell.

9 thoughts on “D. J. Taylor’s Derby Day

  1. Yes, what a good writer! It’s nice to start the year with an excellent “new” book. I’m trying to read more new books this year, i.e., books published this century.


  2. His area of research was Thackeray and he wrote a biography which caused some controversy: he is the first person openly to discuss Thackeray’s alcoholism, suggest that his venereal disease was not just the product of early life encounters. He made the best collection (most readable) of Thackeray’s texts I know it (it includes as its longer story, A Shabby Genteel Story, a kind of dry run for Vanity Fair). This book sounds very Thackerayan.

    I’ll tell the people on Trollope19thCStudies about it



  3. Ellen, he knows so many Victorians! One of the great things about this book, though, is that you can enjoy it without recognizing allthe allusions.

    Clare, yes, he’s amazingly good. I’m always so happy when I discover an interesting contemporary writer.


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