Sunday, 30 October 2016

Another book about Victorian London - well worth a read

Antoine Vanner writes about the late 19th century. His 'Dawlish Chronicles' follow the adventures of Captain Nicholas Dawlish, a naval officer who is anxious to embrace the technological changes in naval warfare in the period. Antoine certainly knows his stuff and his blog provides fascinating details of naval history on a weekly (often twice-weekly) basis.

The latest book in the Dawlish series is now available in paperback. I'm delighted to have the chance to review it here.

Britannia's Amazon

Nicholas Dawlish is on an extended trial of one of the new class of steel-built cruisers. Dawlish’s adventures are intimately related to advances in naval technology in the late 19th century and this looks like more of the same. But Britannia's Amazon is to be a very different book from the previous ones in the series, for as Captain Dawlish vanishes over the horizon the story remains with his wife, Florence.

A brief prologue has summarised Florence’s back-story for anybody new to the series. Once a companion to Lady Agatha, she has married above herself after meeting Dawlish while he was on active service in Turkey. We know she is brave and good, sometimes to the point where she can be quite irritating to a reader who might respond more sympathetically to someone with the occasional fault. In this book, though, we are going to get to know (and probably like) her a lot better.

With her husband away, Florence occupies herself mainly in good works at the Seamen’s Mission. Returning from another day of dull administrative effort, she sees a woman being dragged into a closed carriage. She tries to save the victim, but is beaten to the ground and the two men who are apparently kidnapping the girl make off with her.

Florence reports the incident to the police who take neither her nor her complaint seriously.

At this point the new element is added to the plot. A young naval officer approaches her because he knows her to be a friend of Lady Agatha's. He has a mysterious message which must be relayed urgently to Lady Agatha's brother.

Hurrying to London to see Lady Agatha she meets an American journalist who is writing about the life of the poor in England. Together with a campaigner for improved conditions for the working classes she explores the conditions in the London slums and, in doing so, discovers the truth behind the young officer and his death and how this is in turn tied to the kidnapping that started the adventure.

The plot is Dickensian in its twists and turns, with a large cast of characters and a few Dickensian coincidences to move things along. Like Dickens, it uses the story as an opportunity to explore and expose the world of the Victorian underclass. 1882 was at the centre of an interesting period in British history when new technology and changing social attitudes were hurrying us towards the 20th century, while the condition of the poor harked back to the 18th.

Having just written BackHome, set in the slums and rookeries of 1859, Vanner’s London is a place I recognised and felt at home in. The appalling conditions are all-too-credible. By 1878 there were more movements to improve the lot of the poor and the description of a public meeting to protest about the conditions of workers in match factories (no nonsense about Health & Safety then!) is convincing.

A recurring theme in Britannia's Amazon is the differences between rich and poor. This is often highlighted by Florence’s situation as she moves between her family (her father is a coachman) and her friend Lady Agatha. Her family is at once proud of her and embarrassed as her father finds himself in the position of a servant to his own daughter. Class is inextricably tied into every aspect of her life: the Admiral’s wife snubs her; the police don’t take her seriously. Struggling to cope with the ambiguity of her social status, Florence is a more sympathetic figure than when we met her in Britannia’s Wolf, especially when she is driven to morally dubious measures in the interests of the greater good. Moral dubiousness, though, is kept well in check, usually confined to mysterious foreigners. Otherwise the moral lines are clearly drawn: the poor are generally virtuous and sympathetic while the rich are, with some saintly exceptions, villains who one would expect to twirl their moustaches except for an absence of any really fine facial hair. This is, though, just another Dickensian aspect of the book and if the approach was good enough for Dickens (who, let’s face it, pushed that particular envelope to tearing point) it’s hardly fair to complain about it here.

There’s a lot of solid social history in this book. As I have found writing about the period, one difficulty is that the most outrageously obvious fictions all turn out to be rooted in fact. I have few illusions about Victorian morality, but I was surprised to discover that one of the more improbable details about vice in the Metropolis turns out (according to the Historical Note that completes the book) to be absolutely true. [No details because it’s a spoiler.]

Britannia's Amazon works because we get close enough to Florence to care about her and, through her, to care about the social divides in Victorian society. It provides a vivid picture of Britain, showing the social changes that are reflecting the technological changes that are a strong feature of the earlier books. In the course of Florence’s adventures, we learn a lot about Victorian life at the bottom of the social scale. The other end of society is less sympathetically described and can be sketchy in its details but by the end of the book you should have learned how to cut a person socially, if nothing else. That alone will be a key skill in negotiating Florence’s world.

The plot bowls along and, if it is not entirely convincing, it is, once again, no worse than Dickens. It’s a plot that is true to the era it’s describing and it pulls us into Dickens’ world so we can explore it further. The writing is, thank goodness, not Dickensian. It’s an easy read.

If you’re a fan of novels about the Victorian world (or, indeed, a fan of Victorian novels) it’s well worth a read.

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