Sarah Perry, The Essex Serpent (2016)
I know, I know. It’s probably the most popular novel of 2016, winning prizes, praised everywhere in the UK media for months. I was so looking forward to reading this, and I was so damn disappointed. Perhaps it was the reviews, of which ‘one of the most memorable historical novels of the past decade’ (Sunday Times) is a typical line. Yet The Essex Serpent is not a historical novel. It is a novel set in the 1890s, in a London and an Essex of the imagination (no problem there), but these places are populated by modern characters, living their lives freely in recognisably modern ways, with modern vocabulary (‘headed paper’, anyone?), idiom, slang and anachronistic usage. That’s pretty annoying, but OK, perhaps this is postmodernist, perhaps this novel is a conscious challenge to bring us closer to the Victorians, to make us forget about frilled piano leg rumours and accept that a doctor and a hired companion could have no-strings sex after a party and remain on cordial, guiltless terms ever after, or that a widow and a married minister will do it in a wood. And nobody sees them. Perry cites Matthew Sweet’s Inventing the Victorians as an inspiration, but a Victorian novel needs historicity even if you’re reassessing their behaviour, surely? There are stupid continuity errors: a woman is swung round in a dance so her hair flies out like a fan (no Victorian woman wore her hair down, by the way), and in the next paragraph it’s described as braided to her crown. And then there is the blithe ignoring of social history. There are no servants, anywhere, in any household. No-one doing the work, washing the bloody cloths, scrubbing the muddy hems, cooking the dinners, cleaning around Frankie’s special things, maintaining and commenting on and judging the households. Also, there is no class consciousness among any of the characters. Only one character thinks it odd that a single woman goes out alone at all hours of the day or night. No conditioned behaviour from church or chapel to keep the social strata in their places. In this respect, the characters are wholly unbelievable and the strengths of the writing are diminished. The Essex Serpent is a fantasy set in an imagined past, and I found it about as enjoyable as a Victorian novel that imagines the future: mildly interesting but pointless.
Winifred Holtby, Poor Caroline (1931)
This novel is lifeless. It’s so sad that Holtby’s satire, that would work so well two years later in Mandoa! Mandoa!, fizzles out in here in dull characters with no gumption or energy, nothing to make me care about them or even wonder what they might do next. It starts with a positively Betjemanesque ridicule of suburban Metroland girls returning from an enjoyable trip to London. They’d had to attend the funeral of an aged great-aunt Caroline, but the shopping and the theatres were so much more fun. Then we meet a dilettante who declined to return to Oxford since his allowance will not cover the lifestyle he requires (a touch Wildean there), but then he goes through the war and comes out miserable and marries a woman who is supposed to be bracing and original, but she’s just tiresome. It didn’t work. Nor did the plot about the Christian Cinema Company, or the heiress who wanted to invest her money for her own pleasure. There was no life to any of this, which is so odd from the woman who would write Anderby Wold and South Riding. Maybe a Stella Gibbons, or a J B Priestley, would have added edge and fire. Poor Caroline reminded me of a Stella Benson novel, and I don’t much like her writing. So perhaps it’s my fault.
Ros Barber, The Marlowe Papers (2012)
A novel about Christopher Marlowe in blank verse! I loved the sound of this, and sat down with the smug anticipation of a properly literary read, something I don’t often do. It’s structured in short poems about a page or two long, serving as chapters, moving between episodes and themes. The first forty pages or so are strong, commanding, persuasive, thoroughly intriguing, and we’re rolling through the story in an Elizabethan setting, and mode, that I can swallow without flinching. And then it turns out that Marlowe has written Venus and Adonis under Shakespeare’s name, and is busy writing all the plays as well. His death in a brawl is announced so Marlowe can continue spying for Walsingham, and he is also Walsingham junior’s gay lover. At which point, intrigued but not yet irritated, I paused to look up some of the reviews. Andrew Motion quibbled at the story but not the poetry, and then criticised the story but not the poetry, as if he couldn’t make up his mind which was worse. His Guardian review highlighted a really devastating quote: ‘either commendably ambitious or pointlessly elaborate’. I carried on reading, but my heart and appetite were lacking. The Marlowe Papers reads too much like the PhD in creative writing that it was written for, so between an unconvincing plot, and increasingly self-conscious Creative Writing, I gave up.
Rachel Ferguson, Passionate Kensington (1939)
For me, Rachel Ferguson is erratic. Of her works that I’ve read, they’re either superbly good, or plummeting duds that I clearly don’t get the point of. It’s as I have to tune into her sense of the ridiculous, and I don’t often get it. Passionate Kensington is one I’d been meaning to read for a long time, but had never found, so, thinking it might be a good reprint candidate, I went and read it at the British Library. It is not fiction, Ferguson fans, it is social critique and waspish humour, and local history and memoir, and a guidebook and handbook to the Kensington of the 1930s. She talks about coats and shops and famous traffic accidents and where to buy tomatoes. If you need background information for a novel set in Kensington at any time in the early 20th century, read this work and be grateful. If you are passionately interested in Ferguson’s life, even though some or all of it may be totally invented, read on with relish. But for all other purposes this is a book with a very narrowly defined readership, and must have been published anticipating that it would be bought mainly by those living in Kensington and / or those who like Ferguson. I can’t think of anyone else who would read it.
Edward Sackville-West, Simpson. A Life (1931)
This novel by a connection of Vita Sackville-West is, like her Grand Canyon, an anti-Nazi novel. It begins as if it were the prehistory and dark side of Mary Poppins, telling the childhood, girlhood, vocation and selfless dedication of Simpson, nursery nurse and nanny to a selection of the English and German middle classes, but there is no plot. The story is a string of events and occurrences in Simpson’s long life of caring for others, most of it signifying very little. There is a great deal of interiority, patched in as if the author was learning how to do it by studying other people’s writing. It is a strange, purposeless novel that ends with a sacrifice that feels shockingly tasteless, if this truly is the climax of a person’s life. I found it boring (I skipped to the end), but may have appealed to the nanny nostalgia market in the 1950s, when it was reprinted.