Magazine article The Spectator

All Gas and Gaiters

Magazine article The Spectator

All Gas and Gaiters

Article excerpt

KEPT : A VICTORIAN MYSTERY by D. J. Taylor Chatto, £16.99, pp. 431, ISBN 0701178957 . £13.59 (plus £2.45 p&p) 0870 429 6655

It's irrelevant, I know, but I can't help wondering what it was like living with D. J. Taylor while he was writing this opus. It's so steeped in Victoriana and (as Taylor acknowledges) in the fictional worlds of Dickens, George Eliot, Thackeray, Trollope and co. and it's so big that I picture him emerging into the 21st century maybe just once a week, on a Sunday.

If you want to opt out of the 2lst century and hark back (oh, it's catching! ) to an era of gas lamps and legal clerks scuttling about the grimy streets of London, while the squire sits in his country estate with a stuffed bear in his study and a statutory mad woman in his attic, then this is for you.

Taylor is a biographer as well as a novelist and in some ways Kept feels like an offshoot of his biography of Thackeray.

Isabel, the mad woman in the attic, suggests Thackeray's wife Isabella who after the death of her third child went mad and was 'put away'. Real and fictional characters as well as real and fictional events are brilliantly intertwined in this tale of mystery and chicanery. This, plus Taylor's extensive knowledge of the period, his ability to evoke atmosphere and convey a vivid sense of place -- encompassing the slums of London, the murky fens of Norfolk, the Scottish lochs and the Yukon wilds -- combine to give the novel an almost dizzy authenticity. One is glad of the notes at the back that help to settle what is fact from fiction. Even so, I was driven to check the Cornhill Magazine of 1862 to see if Thackeray really had written A Little Tour through the Counties of East Anglia or if this was pastiche. …

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