D. J. Taylor’s Kept

kept-victorian-mystery-d-j-taylor-132x200In D. J. Taylor’s Kept, a brilliant prequel to his novel Derby Day (which was nominated for the Man Booker Prize), many secrets are kept, and finally uncovered.

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.

Kept by D. J. TaylorThe police officer, Mr. McTurk, who is also a character in Derby Day, eventually solves the train robbery and some other odds and ends.

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.

What I’m Reading Now: D. J. Taylor’s Kept, Sylvia Plath’s Letters Home, & William Gibson’s Zero History


On AOL in the ’90s, before the blog was invented, we posted our thoughts on book boards. AOL hosted dozens of book groups at a site called Book Central.   One year many of us attended The Southern Festival of Books in Nashville, and it was delightful to meet online friends.  Although there were frequent “break-ups” on AOL–a reader’s trashing Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake or Sebastian Faulks’s Birdsong could start a riot or a splinter group–I stayed in touch until AOL canceled Book Central and most of us changed internet servers.

The ’90s for me was the best time online, before the breakdown of groups into bloggers and Facebook users, and before the extensive distribution of review copies that occasionally compromise online integrity.

(Yes, I am part of this culture, too.  I have seen it, I have done it, and of course I love my blog.)

One thing I especially loved about the AOL groups was our “What I’m Reading Now” posts.

I usually wait to post about books after I’ve finished.  But why?

It’s time to revive the “What I’m Reading Now” feature.

Here goes:

kept-victorian-mystery-d-j-taylor-132x200D. J. Taylor’s Kept.  This is a prequel to his novel Derby Day, the 2011 novel which was nominated for the Man Booker Prize (I wrote about it here).  If you are mad about allusions to Victorian novels, as I am, you may like this even more than Derby Day. The vividly-drawn  character,  Isabel Ireland, is a Bronteish mad woman, based on Thackeray’s wife; Trollope’s Josiah Crawley and Mrs. Oliphant’s Miss Marjoribanks and her father the doctor make appearacnces;  and Taylor introduces us to Mr. Pardew, a fascinating con man, and Captain McTurk, a clever policeman, whom we meet again  in Derby Day.

I am amazed by the wealth of historical and descriptive detail, and his encyclopedic knowledge of literature.

He also includes historical characters, like Dr. John Connolly, who “advocated radical reform of the treatment of lunatics and a system of patient care…. ” (See Taylor’s endnotes.)

I am savoring the language.  I will write more about this novel later.

Letters_Home_ plathSylvia Plath’s Letters Home.  Inspired by Nancy at Silver Threads, who reviewed Janet Malcolm’s The Silent Woman:  Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes, I got out my copy of Sylvia Plath’s letters.  She is mainly ecstatic during her first year at Smith in 1950. Even then, however, she has to be careful not to be overstimulated, and she has joked about suicide twice in the first 50 page. She writes to her mother, “By the way, do you suck those buffered penicillins or swallow with water?…  I don’t want to kill myself by taking them the wrong way!”

She is impressed by her teachers, and especially loves Miss Mensel, a charming woman who keeps in touch with all the scholarship students.  Sylvia writes, “I had to keep myself from getting tears in my eyes as I told her how happy I was….   I was afraid I would be stiff and nervous at first, but my enthusiasm washed that all away, and I just flooded over and told her how happy I was.”

Oh, Sylvia!

Zero-History-cover gibsonWilliam Gibson’s Zero History is a science fiction thriller, partly about fashion.  Hollis Henry, a former rock star, and Milgrim, a former drug addict, are hired to find out who makes “Hounds,” a beautifully-sewn line of denim jackets and jeans that turn up periodically at select fashion trade shows.  Their boss, Hubertus Bigend, is always looking for information, and wants a contract to design military wear in the U.S.

So fast, so fun, so clever!

And more later…

When I finish these, you’ll hear more.