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March 13, 2006 | by  | in Books |
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Kept: A Victorian Mystery

The back cover sports a tantalizing list: “madness, greed, love, obsession, Machiavellian plotting and a great train robbery”. This looks lush and indulgent, I thought, noting the curly gold font, and faux oil painting decorations. I began to wonder if I had found my guilty pleasure for the next week.

Before page one begins, two obituaries are presented: in August, 1863, Mr Henry Ireland, a popular Suffolk gentleman, is thrown from his horse and, “in a tragic misadventure”, cracks his head open, presumably on a rock. He dies. Three years later, in West Norfolk, another “dreadful incident” occurs. Mr James Dixey was found on his own property, with his throat torn out in such a way that suggests the savagery of a wild animal. How, the reader starts wondering, are these two incidents related?

Ploughing through the 420 pages, four or five distinct stories are slowly plaited together, in the normal fashion of this genre. Henry Ireland’s young wife shows signs of madness before his death. As a consequence his will insists that, if he dies before her, she become the ward of his trusted friend, Mr Dixey, who happens to be a sort of naturalist, breeding unusually large, black, wolf-like dogs. (Aha! Says the assiduous reader. I’ve made a connection.) Mrs Ireland’s second cousins, the Carstairs, who wonder at her confinement, become entwined in the story. They contact the late Henry’s lawyer, a Mr Crabbe, who is curiously secretive about the matter. They call in the favour of an old boyfriend of Mrs Ireland’s, a Mr Farrier, who is colourfully engaged in a Canadian winter, trying to stay alive and avoid being eaten by a wolf. On top of all these other names come Dunbar and Dewar, egg poachers (not the breakfast kind), who make a tidy profit selling their curios to Mr Dixey. Then there is the token rich man with an ill-gotten fortune Pardew. And then, of course, is the chambermaid, Esther, who befriends Mrs Ireland.

There’s a lot here to pique a reader’s interest. Each male character mentioned above is driven by greed of different varieties. Dixey wants exotic wild life, including Mrs Ireland. Everyone wants gold. But it’s just all rather predictable. As the little drawing on the cover of a black bird outside a gold birdcage suggests, it’s not all that subtle either. Okay, I compromise, a Victorian Mystery is allowed to lack subtlety and mystery, so long as it can make up for this with lots of insinuated sex, violence and laudanum. Maybe some Dickensian characters and dialogue as witty as George Eliot’s as well. A surprise or two was all I asked, but the “gorgeously intricate novel about the urge to possess” left me confused. I found myself racing through the chapters that plotted out corrupt dealings of the Pardew, in order to return to Mrs Ireland’s plot strand. Perhaps this is merely a side-effect of my gender, but I found myself taunted by the fact that more time was spent on predictably avaricious young men doing bad things than on a true mystery. Why did Mrs Ireland go mad? How will she escape the prison that is Mr Dixey’s attack? Will she get eaten by a wolf? Will little Esther help her escape?

Maybe I’m just not familiar enough with this faux Victorian genre. I found the diary entries by George Eliot and Thackeray, which included details about the fictional characters, cute and the ‘damn it’s written as d—–t a little bewildering. I think I would have appreciated the trouble D. J. Taylor went to, sourcing all manner of historically accurate detail and maintaining Victorian stylistic quirks, if only the story had been worth it. Caught in a regrettable limbo between pulp mystery and quality historical fiction, Kept was, for me at least, ultimately boring. If you’re a fan of historical mysteries, I suggest you stick to Rose Tremain’s Restoration or Music and Silence. Or better still, go for the real thing and read a bit of Dickens.

D.J. Taylor
$27.99, Random House

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