Sunday 26 February 2017

Review: The Virtue of this Jest by James Stuart Montgomery

“Come Gentle and simple, come, high born and low,
Come see, Mother London, her great raree show.
In lame beggar’s mile round about Temple Bar
I promise more wonders and marvels by far
Than ever you’d see in a year and a day
In Prester John’s Kingdom or fabled Cathay,
And there’s never a penny, a penny to pay.”
- Chaunting Nick Swyane (Aka James S Montgomery)

I was expecting this review to either be of Voltaire’s ‘Candide’ or a late eighteenth century sequel to ‘Rasselas’ called ‘Dinarbas’. Instead, I shall look at a completely unknown book from 1929 called ‘The Virtue of this Jest’.
I picked this up at the book-swap at Willesden Green Tube station. I was attracted by the title, then the map of (eighteenth-century) London on the endplates. I was sold on the book where the blurb described itself as ‘second to none in the literature of rascality’. 
The book also features one of my favourite ever dedications;
   ‘To Millie, who said, “If you publish this book, I shall lose all of my respectable friends. Go ahead.”   - a finer example of its type, I doubt can be found.
We then get started. 
The book tells the story of ‘Chaunting Nick Swayne’, a fictional Grub Street poet of the grubbiest kind. Nick has three fathers and two mothers, the second of these is Mother London and she teaches him all her little ways. We follow Nick through all his underground haunts, his company of beggars, his tricks and connivances and we meet Mab, the love of his life. 
Nick is good company, he’s a naive, good-natured poet with the confidence to trick people but no willingness to actually do harm. He is tempted by the beggar’s life, as described by the beggar-philosopher, Tom Steptoe but is pulled by a burning ambition within him to do something with his life. 
This something (and the main ‘plot’ part of our novelistic experience) turns up in the last third of the book where a chance encounter with a not quite highwayman leads him to lend his poetic talents to the service of Bonnie Prince Charlie. First he creates various anonymous Grub Street swipes at the Whigs and the so-called Tories who sing songs for the Stuarts but doesn’t actually do anything. Then he concocts an ingenious plan to gather the beggars together into an army in the name of beggar-emperor Cock Lorrel. The intention being that the beggar army will take and hold London for the Stuarts when the time is right.
Things go array and Nick and his co-conspirators are caught. We are given a brilliant chapter where his friend Blueskin (no relation to Jonathan Wilde’s enemy) goes to the gallows. This chapter doesn’t do what ‘Slammerkin’ did and try and makes us sorry for Blueskin, instead it follows ‘The Beggar’s Opera’ track where, “The youth on the cart hath the air of a Lord, and we cry, there dies an Adonis’. It ramps up the party atmosphere, the notion that a proper hanging day, complete with self-aggrandising ballad, is the apotheosis of the criminal career - not the sad swinging out of this world but an ascension into criminal legend… a fate Nick doesn’t share as he is snuck out of Newgate on the last page.
The plot is light; the first two thirds give us a series of cons and colourful characters for Nick to interact with before the ’45 stuff gets going - but the characters are great. From Tom Steptoe, a Buddah of a beggar, to Listening Jem the bar man, to Mab, to Nick himself, we are always in good company.
Also, it makes up the lack of plot by being very, very entertainingly written. Almost every page has at least one quotable sentence that delights in its sly wit, irony, or playfulness. Where ‘Golden Hill’ used a canting dictionary to bludgeon some eighteenth-century into the book, this book uses it as a ribbon to decorate and tie the thing together. 
James S Montgomery was a poet and the comic poems are fun and well written but it’s his narrative voice that wins the most. I can’t find any other novel written by him, but I’d love to see one. He nails the slippery, ‘say-what-is-not’, playful approach that my favourite eighteenth century writers approached the page and the world, and it is wonderful.

 - On a side note, it was a very instructive book for me, having written my own novel in an eighteenth century style about a naive poet getting sucked into London’s criminal underworld. I shall definitely read this again before I go redrafting through ‘Odes to the Big City’.

Friday 17 February 2017

Review: Slammerkin by Emma Donoghue

Slammerkin is a novel published in 2000 by Emma Donoghue, who has since found fame for writing Room. Unlike last week’s Golden Hill, the novel is not written in a (supposedly) eighteenth century style. When I bought the book, I thought it would be the story of Mrs Slammerkin from The Beggar’s Opera, but it turned out to be inspired by various fragments of eighteenth century court cases

In many ways it follows the traditional eighteenth-century prostitute narrative, a young, innocent maid is seduced and finds herself on the streets of London, where she has to sell he body to survive. This tends to continue until the poor woman is hanged, dies of disease or (if it’s a happy story) marries into wealth and happiness. 

What is strange about this book, is that instead of being born in the country and running away to London, Mary Saunders is born in London and finds herself in the country.  She loses her maidenhead for a ribbon, she then lives the life of a slammerkin, or trull with new-found friend, Doll Higgins. When Doll dies and Mary finds herself at the attentions of a knife-happy pimp, so she runs to the countryside to her mother’s childhood home of Monmouth.

Mary is dismayed by Monmouth; it’s smallness, its drabness and the excess of crows (the original title was ‘A Complaint of Crows’ – a more accurate title, Mary complains a lot). There, she enters service with her mother’s old friend, struggling with the constraints of a maidservant’s life but enjoying the warmth and safety of a family.

Here in the book, the point-of-view shatters somewhat. Where we have been following Mary and her alone; we now spend a little time in the heads of the whole household; Mr and Mrs Jones, Mrs Ash the nanny, apprentice Daffy and black maid-of-all work Abi. I won’t reveal the ending, but Mary’s old ways, spurred by her longing for applause and finery, cannot be held down and they erupt.

This is very much a book of two parts, it would seem the first 152 pages are little more than backstory, with the real story is the one that takes place in Monmouth. Looking at her website, it seems that the editor at Virago insisted on ‘lots more London’, so it would seem to be their fault that the novel feels a little… wonky somehow. 

Not that the London stuff is bad, it’s well researched and properly evokes the world of the bunters - the streetwalkers, those with less stake in society’s respectable life then even the moderately high-class Fanny Hill. The world is sweaty and clammy and horrid (the world ‘greasy’ is used countless times). Doll Higgin is an enjoyable, if unoriginal ‘whore’ character and Mary Saunders’ rapidly hardening worldview is well portrayed. However, the London scenes were pretty generic with a number of nudge-nudge wink-wink references to Scratching Fanny, the Cock Lane Ghost and a cameo from Samuel Johnson and Boswell.

 However, it’s the Monmouth stuff that is the real meat of the story – from the suggestions of the website, it would seem that this was the novel originally. The relationship between Mary and Mrs Jones is very well done. Mrs Jones is the loving, kind mother that Mary longed for but also a representative of the narrow, blinkered world of the Welsh Marches. There’s a genuinely layered relationship between them; a lonely woman and her surrogate daughter who is also her social inferior. The household also includes Abi, a Barbadian former-slave, who is officially no longer a slave but can’t convince the Jones family to actually pay her. At the end of the novel, she is stranded in London, having run away and looking forward to her new life, hopefully her life will pan out better then Mary Saunders. 

Ultimately, I enjoyed Slammerkin, I felt that I would probably have enjoyed A Complaint of Crows more, before publisher intervention unbalanced the book and changed it from the slightly dour tone of the original title to the ‘ho-ho-ho’ of Slammerkin. I’m all for an underworldly, rambunctious take on the eighteenth-century (I’ve written my own) but there is also a need for the gritty, the greasy and the dour - and Emma Donoghue should have been allowed to do just that.

Monday 6 February 2017

Review: Golden Hill by Francis Spufford

Golden Hill presents me with an unusual problem. This book came out last year and has recently been hitting the two-for-one table in bookshops, having just won the Costa award for first novel. Most of the books I review on here have been published for a few centuries so I don’t usually feel a warning on spoilers is needed - in this case it is.

I was so excited about this book; it’s not often a writer I know and like creates an eighteenth century style novel set in pre-revolutionary New York. Described on the title page as ‘the best eighteenth century novel since the eighteenth century,' the style was the element of the book I was most looking forward to. 

Unfortunately, this was one of the weakest parts. It’s simply not written in any eighteenth century style I recognise. True, the book is front-loaded with criminal slang drawn from any canting dictionary and there are three moments where the narrator intrudes to make excuses for not being able to describe something properly - but there wasn’t the full on heavy irony of Fielding, the whizz of Smollett, the extravagance of Sterne, the plainness of Defoe - nor any real feeling that this was anything other than a modern-sounding novel with a few old phrases lobbed in. It’s rather like a Tesco curry sauce, this book has a notion of eighteenth century flavour but none of the piquancy.

That said, there are some completely brilliant set-pieces and turns of phrase within the book. There’s a discussion about whether being hanged in the morning really does concentrate the mind - for our protagonist Smith, it doesn’t. I also thought a fever, with its strange, intense, tiring dreams was described better in this book then in any novel I have read. There were a number of very striking similes, I liked one about someone’s expression being like a mask where the eye holes were not lined up right. I’m not saying the book is badly written at all, once I accepted that it wasn’t going to be a Fielding-(Henry and Sarah)-esque romp, I enjoyed the writing immensely.

As good as the writing was, the noveling was incredibly poor. Smith turns up in New York with a cheque for a thousand pounds which may, or may not, be an elaborate scam. What's odder is that he never confirms nor denies whether he is pulling a fast one or not. Odder still, the narration follows Smith, delving into his head, where his internal monologue seems to say, 'oh, how mysterious I am,  I hope I am not uncovered, I must complete my mission'. It is the most irritatingly un-knowledable omniscient narrator and there were many times I felt the book had flat out cheated me rather then pleasingly tricked me.

There was a fairly engaging combative love story that goes nowhere, the story of the scheme ends in anti-climax. The political story about the argument between governor and assembly has a number of events but no real conclusion (except perhaps its nod to the coming revolutionary war). 

We also didn’t see if Smith’s scheme really worked, because the narrator could only narrate about him in New York. This is discovered in the epilogue, where it turns out Smith's non/love interest has written the novel - which completely takes away any last vestige of the Fielding-esque romp, as the interruptions were not from a narrator who is ironically detached but from one of the participants. Also, if she was narrating it; how did she know what Smith felt all the times she wasn’t there? How did she find out the secrets other characters told him, or the threats they made to him if he hadn’t told her about it? Why does she paint herself as so unknowable in her own narrative? …essentially, the last chapter undid any narrative good that had happened in most of the rest of the book and even parts I had enjoyed at the time began to sour in retrospect.

I was really quite disappointed with this book, perhaps I was hoping for too much from it or perhaps I'm just too proud of my own eighteenth century novel to appreciate someone else's.