Set in the 1860s, this stylishly-written novel follows the arc of a well-plotted Victorian novel, paying homage to Dickens, Thackeray, Trollope, Mrs. Oliphant, Wilkie Collins, George Gissing, and other 19th-century writers. Taylor expertly mimics Victorian language without losing his modern voice; in a sense, Kept is a meta-Victorian novel, with a mix of fictional characters, historical characters, and characters from other Victorian novels.
Taylor writes in a number of different styles here: traditional narrative, diary entries, even newspaper articles. He interweaves a fictional diary entry of George Eliot’s with the musings of a mad woman in an attic with the double-dealings of out-of-pocket Londoners who turn to crime.
The characters are deftly-depicted and strikingly odd. There is James Dixey, a collector of rare eggs and mounted animals, who has also collected and confined a mad woman, the quirky and sympathetic Mrs. Ireland (based on Thackeray’s mad wife). A raging wolf prowls his estate; in a parallel but contrasting scene, another wolf benevolently and totemically stalks a cousin of Mrs. Ireland in Canada who is trying to find his way back from the wilderness to the city. Then there is the criminal Mr. Perdew, a character in Derby Day, who keeps discounted bills, does odd tricks with money, and plans a theft of gold bullion (based on the Great Train Robbery). And there is the maid Esther, who becomes a confederate of Mrs. Ireland, and later runs away to London. All these people are connected, and some are kept by others.
There are occasionally authorial asides, at least fictional authorial asides.
I will own that I am a curious man. And yet my curiosity is, as it were, of an altogether curious kind. A sealed casket holds no charms for me. A locked door seldom makes me yearn for a key and the right to admittance. Rather, my fascination lies with great people and the moment when their greatness has, albeit temporarily, been put aside. How does a bishop conduct himself when, retiring to the bosom of his family, he divests himself of his mitred hat? What does Lord John, coming back from the Treasury chambers, say to his wife, his butler or the domestic who hands him his tea? Half the charm of fiction resides in these imaginings. Write a novel about a ploughman in his field or a City Croesus striding about the floor of ‘Change with his hands plunged into his trouser pockets and no one will read it, but let a distinguished nobleman, the heir to broad acres and the confidant of half the Cabinet, tell his wife that he has the gout or that he will lend no more money to her scapegrace brother and the public is instantly agog!
Many secrets have to be deciphered, among them the reason for Mr. Dixey’s locking up Mrs. Ireland after her husband’s death. When Mrs. Carstairs, a relative, goes to Easton Hall to visit her, Mr. Dixey will not let her see her.
The mystery of Mrs. Ireland’s disappearance–to Norfolk, to Dr. Conolly’s establishment, to wherever it was that she might be lodged–seemed to her so obviously a mystery that she could not believe that any other person could not imagine it so.
And characters from other novels appear. One of Trollope’s characters, Rev. Josiah Crawley of Framley Parsonage and The Last Chronicles of Barsetshire, and a Miss Amelia Marjoribanks–perhaps a relative of Mrs. Oliphant’s Miss Lucilla Marjoribanks of Miss Marjoribanks?–play a part in the novel.
The rich texture and breadth of this novel would make a great BBC miniseries for those who like Downton Abbey. (Victorian, but isn’t that really as good?)
Both Derby Day and Kept are excellent. I don’t know which I enjoyed more. Perhaps Derby Day is better-written; perhaps Kept is more fun. Some may feel the opposite.
It is always wonderful to find a good contemporary writer, because, as some of you know, contemporary fiction is not always my thing. My resolve this year? Read more 21st-century novels.