I read fewer eighteenth century (and eighteenth century adjacent) books this year than others and that is probably reflected in my top ten list. This top five does include one eighteenth century book, three from very recent and one total wildcard.
Shark Alley by Stephen Carver
A fascinating novel about ‘penny-a-liners’ written by a biographer of William Harrison Ainsworth - with shark attacks.
Shark Alley by Stephen Carver purports to be the missing papers of forgotten writer, Jack Vincent. In his heyday one of the set of writers that included Dickens, Thackery and William Harrison Ainsworth, but now writing penny-a-line for newspapers. He has been sent on the troopship, HMS Birkenhead, which suffered a real tragedy when it sank in shark-infested waters. The book cuts between flashbacks to his life leading up to boarding the ship, and his experiences of the ship and with the tragedy.
I love how Shark Alley commits to its bit. The blending of real and fictional characters and incidents is balanced really well and the book even includes endnotes by ‘editor’ Carver that explain how and why Vincent has been lost to history. There’s also an endnote, where Carver explains how he finds the papers, stealing them from a hiding place behind a copies of ancient Daily Mails in a dead hoarder’s house.
The cover is also gorgeous with a real ‘boy’s own’ style. Originally the book was written in instalments on a website, with each containing an illustration, as a triple-decker novel, those illustrations aren’t included.
There’s some exciting shark action from the beginning, with a horse falling off the side and being yummed right up by a Great White. There’s also some premonition, when Vincent falls in a pond and has his toes bitten off by a pike as a boy - he’s not fond of water or carnivorous fish.
The first book is split into two sections, initially setting up the Birkenhead and the people on it and then going into the flashbacks. The second book alternates between flashback and ship-board action and the last book takes place on the ship and the later tribunal. I found the stuff on the Birkenhead to be a little less interesting than the flashback stuff, until the ship struck the rock and things went full throttle.
Jack Vincent is the son of a tailor who was put into the Marshalsea by the oily Mr Grimstone. There his literacy sets him apart and he reads to the other inmates, later creating his own stories. Not only are there Little Dorrit parallels, but the other inmates include the real Bill Sikes and Nancy. One visitor, David (Copperfield) even ends up being Dickens and the two talk narrative and social conscience. One day the prison is visited by Bob Logic, Jerry and Corinthian Tom, the main characters of Life in London, a popular book in the Regency - who are also real life artists the Cruickshank brothers and Pierce Egan.
Shark Alley is full of references, both historical and literary. Publishers, both mainstream and radical are important side characters. Vincent is represented as a keen Chartist, who was present at the mega-meeting in Kennington. He, Dickens and Harrison Ainsworth have a friendly rivalry until the moral panic about Newgate sends Dickens into more respectable territory and Harrison Ainsworth as a less stellar career as a historical novelist. (Carver is William Harrison Ainsworth’s most recent biographer, and a clear fondness enters the text). However, Shark Alley uses all this research to power the story along and there’s never an info-dump quality to it, all research is well digested. Particularly well handled is flash-slang (which I have seen sink other novels) and research into underworld London.
As Vincent is a novelist (he prefers the ‘ebb and flow’ of prose, me too) there are discussions of his novels. Though this is labelled ‘Vol I’, if Carver wants to branch out and write some actual Jack Vincent novels, I am all for them. The Shaking of the Timbers, is a crazy story about time-travelling on a demonically possessed boat that grows limbs. It makes a noble hero out of Captain Kidd and they fight a demonic Blackbeard. I’d love to read that. His gothic novellas include zombie babies born from necrophiliac sex and ghosts coming back to retrieve their gold teeth. There’s also the gonzo take on Sweeney Todd in The Death Hunter - I’m down for all those. There’s even mention of an experimental tale, Jack Sheppard in Space… yes please.
Carver doesn’t shy away from the grotesque. Both his parents meet horrid endings, one by cesarean and the other being eaten by rats. His sister is taken away by a strange dopplegänger and the book suggests a sequel where she is found (yes please). This goriness is brought to full force when the HMS Birkenhead sinks (as it did in real life) in an area of the sea known as Shark Alley. The book is not afraid to make the shark attacks as vicious and violent as possible, even including the literary equivalent of jump-scares. One man has his head bitten off when he looks down into the sea from a lifeboat - it’s great.
Shark Alley develops a very likeable hero in Vincent. He’s had a rough life and has responded likewise, he makes many stupid decisions but he has a young wife and son and it’s clear to the reader how much he has changed for them. It also creates a brilliant villain in Mr Grimstone, who always manages to pop in the book to ruin things. He’s everything wrong with the world, a rich capitalist politician who masks his cowardice under a pretended military service and his perversions under a pretend happy family life. Very hateable.
I’m just waiting on volume 2.
The Misadventures of Margaret Finch by Claire McGlasson
The return of Claire McGlasson with yet another gripping novel about a strange little corner of history.
Margaret Finch is in Blackpool as part of Mass Observation (something else that interests me, the book on ‘the pub’ is very interesting). As such, she is introduced like a secret agent, aloof from the people around her, listening in and recording. She’s a spy in the herd, not part of the things around her, hiding in a changing cubicle and taking her clothes off so she doesn’t stand out. When her spying goes wrong, she’s saved by a kindly older gent with gapped teeth who assumes she knows who he is.
He is Harold Davidson, a genuine historical figure with a fascinating story - I read it in Troublesome Priest by Jonathan Tucker. At this point in his life, he’s become a rector of Stiffkey in Norfolk but discovered a passion for working in Soho in London. There’ he’s gained the name ‘the prostitute’s padre’ and claims to have ‘saved’ 500 people. One of them took him to court though and the scandal has led to him being defrocked. In Blackpool, he plans to make a spectacle of himself, sitting in a barrel, to rise awareness of his unfair dismissal and funds for his appeal. Margaret finds herself drawn to the man and the puzzle over whether he was a naughty priest or something else.
Meanwhile, she has her own demons to face. From the outset, she is clearly the victim of much childhood repression, and this is spooled out throughout the book. It’s led to her feeling that a cold, outsider approach is the best in life and this leads to her being a very good spy for Mass Observation. However, this position of being outside everything also strengthens and emphasises this feeling of being empty. She finds herself filling this with alcohol, and later prescription opiates. At one low point in her drinking, she wets herself, stuffs her knickers in her bag and wakes up the next morning to find them still in there, clammy and cold - it’s quite the realistic comedown.
There is also hope though, in her blossoming relationship with her immediate superior in Mass Observation. James is a puppydoggish figure, his interest in people being as gleeful and involved as hers is detached. There’s is a really lovely relationship that develops.
Set in the 30s, there’s a growing unease of the war; the last gasp of end-of-the-pier shows, with a flea circus operator feeding the fleas with his own arm, and a general feeling of immediate crisis and change. Mass Observation itself seems to come from a really unpleasant place. The founder is presented as a terrible snob, who sees the working class as an alien race who need to be studied but never understood or accepted.
The characters are all believable and interesting. I particularly liked the presentation of Davidson, a victim of his own ego, no sex-pest but definitely a pest, whose strange ending is a result of his self-absorption and love of drama.
The Rapture was one of my favourite books when it came out but I enjoyed The Misadventures of Margaret Finch even more. What historical curlicue is she going to write a novel about next?
Mischief Acts by Zoe Gilbert
Another returner, in which Zoe Gilbert weaves a thousand years of myths and legends surrounding Croydon.
Mischief Acts is the story of Herne the Hunter. A mythological man of the forest with a crown of stag antlers, he was first mentioned by Shakespeare but later written about by arrange of other authors including one of my favourites, William Harrison Ainsworth, who did his thing and rejuvenated the myth for a few more years. Gilbert creates an origin story, Herne is the king’s favoured hunter but that causes envy among the other courtiers. They wish harm on him and he is killed when a stag rushes for the king and he steps in the way. The wizard Bearman brings him back to life by placing the antlers on his head but also taking away his hunting skill. Ostracised from his peers, he hangs himself but returns as the spirit of The Great North Wood.
The book then tracks the fate of this wood and it’s guardian spirit through the course of history and into the future. Often there is a form of Bearman, existing as his antagonist. Herne’s form, name and presence changes as the forest does but whenever he does appear, some form of mischief will follow. As such, the mischief is tied into the unpredictability of nature and is compared to the desire for order and control inherent in man (in these stories a variation of Bearman).
One of the best elements of this book is how the tone, genre and structure of the book completely fit the theme. Each story is set in a specific time period and the species of writing matches it. The origin story is told as a ballad/prose poem, there’s a renaissance set story which takes advantage of the eras dabbling in dryads, nymphs and other Arcadian visions, there’s a gardener’s almanac, a scientist’s notebook, a modern relationship drama. The stories set in the future try and evoke futuristic slang, probably the closest element to a misfire, but I loved the intent.
As nature is understood and the wood is built on, Herne himself becomes implied rather then seen. He becomes a concussion vision, an acid trip vision and the last thoughts of a dying (and decomposing) man. I loved how, as the enchantment of nature diminished in popular understanding, so the enchantment of the book is diminished - I also loved the positive notions of the ending, where a re-wilding and re-enchantment can take place. The book argues how a connection with the mischief of mother nature is also a connection with magic and our natural, animalistic selves. This magic is also threaded through the books by the songs between each story and the charms immediately before them.
What’s more, these are good stories. I loved the sweetness and strangeness of the lesbian acid-trip story where the word nymph plays two roles. I enjoyed the farce of the scientist’s story, balloon-trip accident and all. As a child who grew up among trees downed by the 1987 hurricane, I loved how it was described as Herne’s howl of pain and anger. I also enjoyed the use of historical personages and events, from Edward Alleyn to the scandalous eighteenth century actress Ann Catley. Did you know it was Herne who burnt down the Crystal Palace? I’m glad he left the dinosaurs though.
While I loved Folk, Mischief Acts is a definite improvement, tying the myths into the landscape and more importantly into how the landscape changed over time (and the guess at what might happen to it next). Herne himself is never particularly knowable as a character, he exists as a force but the characters he does affect are well developed. The threads that link the stories stop the book feeling fractured but the different tones and genres re-engage each time. I really loved this book and am eager to see what Zoe Gilbert writes next.
The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman by Laurence Sterne
Already one of my favourite books. I could have left it off the list but honesty impelled me to include it and put it high up.
A look at my most recent read here.
Ducks: Art, Legend, History by Anna Giorgetti
A complete outlier on my reading list, but there was no way that this charming, delightful and informative book would be the top of my 2023 list.
I don’t think anyone could see a book called Ducks: Art, Legend, History and not at least pick it up. After reading a little of it, I don’t see how anyone could not take it and read it straightaway.
A thoroughly charming little book written in Italian by Anna Giorgetti and translated by Helena Ramsay, Ducks: Art, Legend, History is exactly that, a pleasant little muse over the role of ducks in stories and history, all illustrated by pictures of collectable ducks.
The tone is the most wonderful thing. Giorgetti clearly loves ducks (and to a lesser extent geese). There’s nothing about ducks gang-raping in this book, they are a symbol of marital fidelity in China and nothing negative about ‘our friends’ (as they are frequently referred to) is allowed in this book.
We learn about the hansa, the mystical duck-goose that turns up in hindu legends. We learn about magical ducks in Russian folktales and there’s even a thoughtful retelling of The Ugly Duckling. This story proves to be a little difficult for Giogetti, because while she is firmly pro-duck, she is pretty anti-swan. She concludes that while people may admire the swan, in their heart of hearts they actually prefer the duck.
She talks about ‘duck’s superiority over other birds’ because they are able to traverse earth water and air and goes on fanciful discussions of them as embodiment of the elements. She wonders what a psychiatrist would make of her dreaming of ducks, something that I imagine happens to her quite often and concludes that ‘even the tiredest’ businessperson staying at a Ramada Hotel must be ‘laughing and relaxed’ because of the toy duck in every bathroom.
Impeccably pleasing, slightly quackers and well worth pecking up.
If you want to look at all the books I read last year, they can be found on my list here.