Wednesday 31 October 2018

Review: The Mystery of Edwin Drood by Charles Dickens and completed by Leon Garfield

Spooks, corpses and other creepy things - maybe it's Halloween.

I come to one of the most curious artefacts in my three-year long search through Leon Garfield’s work, one of his only books specifically marketed for adults, and a book that he didn’t even begin.

‘The Mystery of Edwin Drood’ was started by Dickens in 1870 who wrote six of a proposed twelve serials before suddenly dying from a stroke. The proposed novel is shorter than many Dickens books and seems to be more focused on a mystery than usual for him. For me, the biggest part of the mystery is, ‘how would Dickens have made a surprise from a solution so obviously telegraphed to the reader?’ Although he didn’t leave many notes, he did send someone a letter where he confirmed that the obvious reading of the clues was the correct one…so how was he going to sustain interest to the end? And how does Garfield manage it?

We open with a very striking image of Cloisterham Cathedral that reveals itself to be a vision undergone by Jack Jasper, the lay precentor, as he lays befuddled in a London opium den. As the chapters proceed, we learn that Jasper is uncle to Edwin Drood, who is only a few years younger than him. Drood is an orphan who will shortly be taking his place in his father’s company and become an engineer in Egypt. He is engaged with Rosa Budd, another orphan of rich inheritance, the engagement was decided by both sets of parents before they die and Drood seems to regard her as another good thing he has coming to him. Rosa is less keen on the arrangement, not because she doesn’t like the young man, but because she resents not being given options. The complicating factor is that Jasper has his own obsession with Rosa, signified by a poorly drawn picture of her he has on the wall.

To be honest, I can’t see why everyone is so hot for Rosa. She is constantly referred to as childlike, she has immature strops, she has been coddled for most of her life in pity of her orphaned status (and in honour of her coming wealth). She is cute but she is also silly and stupid, putting her apron over her head to hide her face like a shy child and only being tempted out by ‘lumps-of-delight’ - a far better name for Turkish delight which I am certainly going to include in my vocabulary.

We then spend some time meeting other delightful Dickens characters like Mr Sapsea, a man so vain he creates an epitaph to his wife that celebrates him; Crisparkle, a kindly clergyman with a good heart, a light touch and a rather too close attachment to his mother; and Durdles, a dusty stonemason who hires a small boy to throw stones at him if he stays out after ten at night.

Then enters Honeythunder, another very apt named character, a do-gooder with no good in his heart who drops Neville and Helena Landless at the Crisparkles. They are also orphans but have had a harder time and are fiercer because of it. Neville also instantly falls in love with Rosa (why?) and finds Drood’s lack of appreciation for her disgusting. They have a huge argument.

The next few chapters follow the life of Cloisterham, with Drood and Rosa’s awkward not-really-courtship but they mainly follow Jasper. Jasper makes great pains to be friends with Sapsea, who becomes mayor. He hangs out with Durdles who knows the secret ways of the Cathedral and he confides his fears of Neville to Crisparkle. Then, during a storm, Edwin Drood disappears. Jasper quickly blames Neville and although not enough evidence is found, the town blame him and he has to run to London.

Jasper confesses his obsession for Rosa, who is already terrified of Jasper and goes straight to her guardian in London, Mr Grewgious. Incidentally, I loved Grewgious, he is often (very often) described as ‘angular’, he is so socially awkward he uses prompt cards to get him through ordinary conversation but he clearly has a good heart. He also has Donald Trump’s hair, “He had a scanty, flat crop of hair, in colour and consistency of some mangy yellow fur tippet; it was so unlike hair, that it must have been a wig, but for the stupendous improbability of anybody sporting such a head.”

In London, Rosa meets Tartar, a retired sailor who makes an almost magical roof garden and who Dickens is obviously very fond of (but doesn’t particularly know what to do with). Also a ‘harmless old buffer’ with a secret agenda called Mr Datchery who moves into Cloisterham… then Dickens died.

SPOILER: (Sort of). It is patently obvious at this point that Jasper is the killer, he’s made friends with Sapsea to smooth the way through court and has buried him somewhere secret in the Cathedral, probably Mrs Sapsea’s tomb. This was also confirmed by Dickens. The big question then, is why is it so obvious? While it’s true that the characters aren’t sure who killed Edwin Drood, it’s blatantly clear to the reader.

His daughter thought that the book was more interested in the mindset of Jasper and exploring his nature than a straight-up mystery. Dickens wrote that the anchor of the text was the Bible verse; “When the wicked man turneth away from his wickedness…he shall save his soul alive.” Perhaps the redemption of Jasper was the point of the second half.

There have been many continuations of the story - some where Drood isn’t dead but is Datchery, some where Neville killed Drood and implicated Jasper and many where it was Jasper and he is found out by various means. One continuation was even written by Charles Dickens himself with the aid of a medium. Being a ghost, it wasn’t his best work and the medium’s Americanisms crept in.

Garfield goes the least resistance, Jasper did it route. He makes the drama of the second half less about how Jasper is redeemed and more to do with how he is captured.

Garfield’s style is a pretty good match for Dickens. They share a fondness for odd simile and his comic set-pieces stand up quite nicely with Dickens own. The reading of a play written by Grewgious’s dour clerk, Mr Bazzard is a particular standout, with the clerk’s high opinion of how the event is turning out being wonderfully set against what we actually see. There’s a brilliant joke about the SnakeBite tribe, who only have sixty-five words in their language because they are much higher minded than things like ‘hansom-cabs’ and ‘street-lights’, a fact that most of the characters regard as more inconvenient than noble. There’s a description of a maid who has second sight which is ‘greatly aided by the application of a keyhole’, very Dickensian in its wryness. Garfield also creates a character, Mrs MacSiddons, a retired actress who now runs a lodging house for the profession and regards all excuses to get out of paying rent, even death, as ‘just acting’.

He feels less at home with some of Dickens’ actual characters. His Grewgious is not as angular, his sentences shorter and less awkward and his mode more expressive. Rosa is backgrounded for the (admittedly more interesting) Helena and is not described as the most beautiful woman in a room. He isn’t as in love with Tartar as Dickens seemed to be and the character also fades into the background.

He does love Datchery though. There are some completions of this book where he is really Mr Bazzard, or even Edwin Drood in disguise but in Garfield’s, he is a former-actor turned detective and lives with Mrs MacSiddons when he isn’t investigating. I liked the characterisation, especially the idea that he was tremendously winning actor who can’t remember lines and keeps the name of his alias in the brim of his hat. The inclusion of the stage element, together with some of Dickens’ own Macbeth chapter titles allow for a plan which is telegraphed a little too clearly but convincingly manages to catch Jasper.

Garfield’s Jasper sees (what he thinks) is the ghost of Neville, murdered in a previous chapter. He follows this ghost when he can and realises that it is a real person of flesh and blood. Delighted that Neville is not dead, he feels himself waking up from a bad dream, convinced all the other terrible acts that he has performed were also hideous dreams occasioned by opium. Going to Mrs Sapsea’s sarcophagus, he opens it up with the key he had stolen from Durdles, convinced that there’ll be nothing in it to distress him. Instead he find the mouldering, quick-lime-eaten body of Drood and is arrested.

When Crisparkle goes to visit him in the condemned hold, Jaspers wits are completely gone. He is physically awkward, subject to weird tremors and a double vision. He has psychologically split himself in two; the evil Jasper and the good Jasper. He feels a little sad that he, as good Jasper, will be hanged for evil Jasper’s crimes but hopes for that good part of him to reach heaven. The moment when the noose and bag go over his head are truly moving and we feel very sorry for confused Jasper as he drops. The other characters pair up as they will and it ends with a (mostly) happy Christmas dinner at Mr Grewgious house. The last character is Datchery, who sneaks out of his London house and sets up permanently in Cloisterham as the ‘old buffer’ he was pretending to be.

While I would have liked a bit more of the proposed Dickens plan of focusing on Jasper and his possible redemption, Garfield’s ‘to catch a killer’ second half manages to fit nicely with what goes before it. Garfield’s style is not quite Dickens, it feels alternatively cramped and puffed up - never quite slipping into the ease or ebullience that Dickens possesses. It is, however, a good enough version of Dickens and means that a reader can enjoy the whole story in a far more satisfying way than if they read only the Dickens portion. Perhaps one day I’ll try more Drood continuations to see other ways to end it but for now I’d like to focus on more Dickens, and maybe get another William Ainsworth Harrison fix.

Wednesday 24 October 2018

Johnson and Boswell's Scottish Books at the Dr Johnson Reading Circle

In 1773, a sixty-two-year-old Johnson and a thirty-odd-year-old Boswell went on a trip they had been playfully imagining for ten years. They travelled up to the Hebrides in an effort to see what was left of the old Highland way of life. Both of them wrote a book –  and Dr Johnson’s Reading Circle read both of them.
Johnson’s A Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland was published first. In many ways, it’s a traditional travel book, with Johnson describing the key features on the way and often measuring them. He then makes his conclusions and opinions on what he sees and hears. The book is arranged by location, with the odd gallimaufry of discussion and opinion in various parts.

Coming out after Johnson’s death was Boswell’s The Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides. Whereas Johnson talked about Scotland, Boswell talked about Johnson. Written up from his journal of the trip, Bozzy published the book to test the waters and try out the style of his proposed Johnson biography. There’s lots of conversation and little details that would have been lost to time.
Boswell's tour whole book.jpg
Of the two, the group overwhelmingly preferred Johnson’s account and even found it easier to read than Boswell. Discussing things as inconsequential as scenery with Johnson makes his quite a relaxing book to read but there is a wellspring of anger just underneath. Famous for being disparaging to Scots and Scotland, he quickly finds himself warmed (if not always inspired) by the people’s company and flattered by their welcome. What shines through is his disgust at how parts of Scotland were not looked after or developed – not a disgust at the people, but in how they are being let down by their leaders. This disgust comes through his frequent astonishment at the lack of trees, the poor quality of the housing and the huge swathes of people emigrating to America. There is many a deserted village.
Iona Ruins - cropped
There is also the quality that has him called a ‘secret papist’: his dismayed reaction to the seemingly endless array of destroyed churches that he sarcastically describes as ‘a triumph of reformation.’ This is not, I think, out of any real Catholic sensibility, but more from a general reverence for churches and land deemed sacred. His paragraphs about the ruined abbey on Iona are worthy of the praise Boswell gave them in his own book.

Turning to Boswell, there is a problem with his seemingly compromised Scottish identity. Proud of his ‘old blood’ and deeply in love with the romantic ideal of the Highlands as he is, he is also a Lowland Scot and a member of the modern, forward-looking Scotland. Where he has to shift between identities throughout the journey, Johnson can just be himself.  There’s also the element of him ‘auditioning’ his ideas and style for Johnson’s biography to fellow Johnsonians. Boswell sees himself as made greater by this adventure which ties him closer to Johnson’s ‘brand’. There are moments in the book that are painfully, toe-curlingly, embarrassingly, Boswellian.
Imitations at Drury-Lane Theatre crop.jpg
Despite this, we learn a lot we would never have found out otherwise. We learn that Johnson has read Castiglione’s The Courtier; that Johnson has ‘often’ imagined what sort of seraglio he might run and has considered how he would fight a big dog; that Boswell was once encored for his cow impression in Drury Lane, and that Johnson is pretty good on a horse – if it’s a decent size.
We also enjoyed the amount of teasing in the book. Boswell teases Johnson about old lady who thinks Johnson’s question of ‘where do you sleep?’ is a come-on. Johnson teases Boswell for staying up sharing six bowls of punch. They take turns teasing each other over which of them is the wenching ‘young buck’ and which the civilising influence. At night they often share a room and have private conversations in Latin so their discussion can’t be understood through thin walls.
Dr Johnson and Flora MacDonald DJH_142.JPG
Then there is the full description of their visit to Flora MacDonald and the narrative of Prince Charles’ escape from Culloden. This part is worth reading the book for itself.

Taken together, the books present a fading existence with compassion and anger, but also present a long road trip in all of its highs and lows. Whether it is Boswell feeling superior as Johnson is seasick, or Johnson riding the prow of the boat as Boswell is seasick, this journey cemented the friendship of the two men, gave them quality time together and laid the seeds for Boswell’s later biography.

There was a lot of Scottish travel experience amongst the group, with many having been on parts of the journey and one member having undertaken the whole lot. Even in the modern era, roads flood, ferries are cancelled, island supermarkets run out of food and the mizzle, drizzle and rain pour constantly.
Thomas Pennant, A Tour in Scotland in 1772 (3).JPG
Our boys didn’t make their journey alone. As well as meeting helpful lairds, old women, reverends and servants on the way, they were accompanied by a trusty guidebook, Thomas Pennant’s  A Tour in Scotland and Voyage to the Hebrides (1772) Johnson admired his guide and frequently leaves the descriptions of geographical to him. Currently Dr Johnson’s House have an exhibition, free with entry, that explores the relationship between Pennant and Johnson and includes copies of their books and numerous contemporary artworks of the places visited.

I recommend anyone to give these books a go and to see the accompanying exhibition: there’s much to enjoy as we discovered for ourselves.

Wednesday 17 October 2018

Review: Hogarth's Progress at the Rose Theatre, Kingston

Recently, I took a jaunt to the Rose Theatre in Kingston to see the double bill of ‘The Art of Success’ and ‘The Taste of the Town’ known collectively as ‘Hogarth’s Progress’. 

The first play was a revival of one performed in 1986. It stars Bryan Dick as Young Hogarth, just married and completing his first big success with ‘The Harlot’s Progress’. He goes on a big night (afternoon?) out, paints a killer in Newgate Jail, is thrown mostly naked out of a prostitute’s house and returns home to his own home to be terrorised by the escaped killer who doesn’t like her portrait. 

My principal note for the play was ‘that spun in some strange directions.’  I was expecting something of a biopic but this was something far stranger. Most strange was the flashes of nightmare, mostly shown on projections around the set. These included Hogarth’s wife with a pair of shears about to emasculate him, nightmare versions of creepy women, a poxed prostitute and -  most strangely - the male characters trying to rape Hogarth while taking selfies with a smartphone. 

There’s an obsession with filth in the play, or at least an obsession with shocking the audience with filth. A Lord enjoys some sexual act that involves him caked in blood (his own?); Queen Charlotte enjoys humiliating de-facto Prime Minister, Walpole and humping at his naked bottom; and Hogarth loves being farted on, shat on and pissed on. I find the whole ‘tee-hee prostitutes, pox and dirt’ eighteenth century to be something of a cliché, though maybe it hadn’t been as played out in 1987.

It’s clear that the play is not interested in telling Hogarth’s life but in using his life to say…something. What? I could never decide. There’s stuff about censorship, one of the sub-plots being about Walpole’s pushing of a censor’s bill, especially to silence Fielding. There’s a theme of who owns an image, with the criminal hunting Hogarth for his picture and Hogarth trying to convince Walpole to create a copyright act. There are themes of artistic integrity and selling out, whether an audience should be charmed or shocked. Finally, there were themes of the eighteenth century’s simple views of women - represented by a virginal wife, a prostitute and an unhinged murderer.

I enjoyed Bryan Dick’s Hogarth. He was fierce, pathetic and interesting, though less a battling pug at this moment and more a weasel. I was less keen on his wife Jane. The real Jane Hogarth ran off with him against her family’s wishes and so can’t have been as prim as she is portrayed here. Robert Walpole is a played as gibbering idiot who has the ability to walk into people’s houses in a strange, almost dream-like manner. I was most disappointed with the portrayal of Henry Fielding, played as an idealistic, naïve bumpkin, hardly the writer of ‘Pasquin’ , ‘Tom Jones’ and the founder of the Bow Street Runners. He was mainly there to be the idealism to Hogarth’s cynicism but both seems to have been equally idealistic and realistic.

I enjoyed parts of the first play but had no real notion of what it is supposed to be about and found it chaotically determined to shock more than entertain. I also didn’t realise it was supposed to be a comedy.

The second play is a gentler affair, even if Hogarth himself is less gentle. Where the first was a slightly histrionic, overplayed attempt to shock, the second is essentially a sitcom episode . Welcome to Chiswick where poor Jane Hogarth has to put up with her grumpy husband, please her demanding mother and entertain quirky neighbours like David Garrick. 

In this episode Hogarth is reeling over bad criticism, especially a sharp comment by former antagonist, Robert Walpole’s son, Horace. Hogarth and Garrick go for a drink and insult a war veteran. Hogarth then goes alone, breaks into Strawberry Hill and confronts Horace Walpole over his comment. Returning home he is distracted by a prostitute and beaten up.  Meanwhile, Jane has to take her Lady Bracknell/Lady Crawley-esque mother on a shopping trip. There they are laughed at by bluestockings and Jane’s mother dies.  

Keith Allen looks like old Hogarth and I he clearly enjoyed playing the disappointed full-mouthed old man that came across in Jenny Uglow’s wonderful biography of him. I also enjoyed the gags where no-one had read ‘The Analysis of Beauty’ or appreciated his Sigismunda picture. Jane was probably the centre of this play, she was tired and put upon which had us feeling for her wasted life. I loved the portrayal of Garrick, it was a little obvious to have him vain but he was also as likeable as his contemporaries described and I loved his death of Macbeth sequence. The extremely mannered and bitchy Walpole was also exactly as I imagine him and it was gratifying that his best laughs came from lines in his letters.

This second play was more contained than the first and the comedy had space to breathe. However, the time went a little slower and I wished for the energy of the first. Similarly, it had some very entertaining moments but they never built to much more. 

As a double bill, this was less Hogarth’s Progress but more Hogarth’s Peregrination - a meander round scenes, some enjoyable and some less but with no real point at the end. This is not to say I didn’t enjoy myself, I did but I was hoping for more. It was, however, a better fictional representation of Hogarth than the very limp novel ‘I, Hogarth’ which I don’t hesitate to not recommend. If you want your Hogarth fix, you should probably go to his house and see some prints, go to Sir John Soane’s to see some paintings or read Jenny Uglow’s huge but involving biography. There’s also a pretty decent fictional Hogarth in a Channel Four mini-drama called ‘The Harlot’s Progress’ where William is played by Toby Jones.

Wednesday 10 October 2018

The Return of Leon Garfield (Part Two)

Following on from my initial Leon Garfield roundup and its subsequent sequel, here his 'The Return of Leon Garfield - part two. Again, I am reviewing these in the order I read them.

The Strange Affair of Adelaide Harris

Leon Garfield books have a tendency toward the dark and the uncanny. But this, the first of the two Bostock and Harris novels, is a comedy of errors. In this book, a small(ish) act by two schoolboys escalates through the personal failings of the characters around them before coming to an improbable yet satisfying ending.

Harris and Bostock are two schoolboy best friends. Harris is all brains and Bostock all brawn and after hearing about the Spartan tradition of leaving babies on hills to die, they link it to the Romulus and Remus myth and decide to try it on Harris’ baby sister. The stranded baby is found by the headteacher’s dashing son Ralph, and the arithmetic master’s daughter Tizzy, who takes it back to the school where the arithmetic master challenges Ralph to a duel. The baby is taken to the poorhouse.

The trouble finding the baby involves the creepy pseudo-private investigator Selwyn Raven, who meddles and complicates things by drawing up his own (false) idea of the baby’s disappearance. He’s my favourite character in the book and has an impulsive need to see the worst sides of everyone whilst telling himself he is really after the best.

As characters try and wriggle in and out of the duel, Bostock and Harris try and get Adelaide from the poorhouse and all the other characters try to pair up with those they love…things get confusing, then very confusing, then tie themselves up.

The key to all the characters is that each one knows they are honourable and good but only by consistently lying to themselves. 

There’s no point trying to run through the plot, it ticks beautifully and ties up well. What’s more, Garfield is at his best in terms of style. I didn’t pick any lines in particular but there are plenty of fantastic ones. The insanity of the characters and the way they justify their own selfish actions are gleefully portrayed. Also, Brighton comes out well.

The Night of the Comet

It’s interesting that although Bostock and Harris instigate the farce in each novel, they don’t appear much in it. 

This is even lighter-hearted than ‘The Strange Affair of Adelaide Harris’. Where that book had frequent (if comically inflated) musings on guilt and dark secrets, ‘The Night of the Comet’ is pure romantic farce. There are no dark secrets (or even guessed-at dark secrets) but instead has people talking at crossed purposes.

Each chapter is short and sparky, and each causes the plot to take a sharp left turn - enough of these left-turns lead the characters where they should be. It’s fun, would make a very enjoyable stage-play or a great mini-series. It’s a joyful marriage of sharp plotting and sparky writing but as such is quite hard to review, it works well, achieves its purpose and that’s it.

The best character was the Irish glazier, whom love has turned into an angel. He’s been searching England from Liverpool down until being washed up in Brighton in search of his runaway love. She’s there of course, but his fondness for all women, and a few misunderstandings make their renunion a little more shaky then it could be. 

A fun slice of provincial eighteenth century romance, a tight farce and probably Garfield’s most airy and fun book.

The December Rose

This book follows the general formula of Garfield’s novels. A boy of poor means accidentally falls into a larger mystery. As the secretive net tightens, he finds allies, avoids enemies and eventually brings all the secrets into the light. The book also follows Garfield’s interest in morally grey or misguided villains and Inspector Creaker in this book is one of the best.

Barnacle is our young man, he is an animalistic chimney sweep, who overhears a secretive conversation when lurking up a chimney. Falling into the room he grabs at objects to throw and ends up running away with important evidence in his pocket. The book has the interesting (and slightly odd) notion that once he has the property he accidentally steals, he starts to move from animal to human - a function of property itself.

Barnacle bumps into a big man - not big exactly, it’s as if if what you see of him is the visible sign of a much larger person. This is Mr Gosling (again with the bird names) and he is the rentee of a barge. Taking in Barnacle leads him and the other bargees into danger.

The rest of the book is a thrilling affair, delving into the notions of spies and secret policeman. Seemingly innocent actions like peeling an apple or humming a song are imbued with special and eery significance. The thriller element is tighter in this book than most other Garfield works and I was pulled along at a breakneck pace. 

The book not only thrills but it makes interesting points about class and the importance of the everyman. A conspiracy of lords and government is infiltrated by chimney-sweeps and people who barge manure down the Thames. There are also points about servants and masters. Creaker and Barnacle are the servants of unfair, weak masters but Barnacle rises above it by running into Gosling - the question is whether Creaker will let morality overcome his own loyalty.

Of course, the writing is always brilliant. There were many examples but I’ve picked out the description of a low-dive pub which ‘poured light into the night like a disease.’

It’s another solid book in Garfield’s work.

I shall be looking at his completion of 'Edwin Drood' soonish.

Wednesday 3 October 2018

The Return of Leon Garfield (Part One)

I discovered (and almost instantly loved) Leon Garfield back in 2015, where I did a round up of some of his books. I most particularly love the strange match between the children's marketing of many of his books with there adult themes, and for the often surprising way he describes things.

Recently, I've had another big splurge. The splurge being so big that I am splitting this round up into two parts. As before, I am reviewing these books in the order that I read them rather than order he wrote them.

The Ghost Downstairs

Although ‘The Ghost Downstairs’ is one of Leon Garfield’s shorter books and presented with wonderfully atmospheric illustrations by Antony Maitland (who worked a lot with Garfield), I can’t imagine it’s much of a book for children. Set in the mid 19th century, it tells the story of Mr Fast selling his soul to the devil - sort of. 

The first line is a gripping one and explains the character well;
  "Two devils lived in Mr Fast: envy and loneliness.” Rather than Garfield’s usual young boy protagonist, Fast is a clerk in a solicitor’s office whose chief pleasure is in drawing airtight contracts that no-one can wriggle out of. This sets him in good stead when the mysterious Mr Fishbane offers to draw up a document that offers him his heart’s desire for a price. Mr Fast calculates that a million pounds would be able to procure him all other desires and in exchange he agrees to pay seven years off his life. The twist is, that he specifies that those seven years should come from the first half of his life, so when he gains his million, he feels that he’s got away scot-free.

This isn’t exactly what happens though. So many of his desires, dreams and personality were formed by those first seven years that he has absolutely no idea what he wanted the million pounds for. What’s more, the child of his first seven years is coalescing into the ghostly form of a boy in a sailor suit that he sees following him around.

The rest is a succession of creepy stalking and ghostly chases - not that the ghost is chasing him, he is chasing it to find out what desires he has. Within eighty pages, the book comes to an explosive end.

Aside from Garfield’s writing, which is consistently at it’s strangest and most interesting, I liked all the reversals in what should have been a pretty normal Faust retelling. The robbing of his childhood was haunting and the notion that he has to stalk the ghost felt fresh and new. The evocation of Victorian London with its smoke and fog, the dome of Saint Paul’s looming in the background added another level of atmosphere and intrigue and the moment where Fast realised what he actually wanted was very poignant.

I’d say this is one of Garfield’s best.

Guilt and Gingerbread

Despite being the adventures of a young eighteenth-century man, ‘Guilt and Gingerbread’ is a bit of an outlier in Leon Garfield’s novels. This is because the book is a fairytale and not a historical novel. It’s also one of the few of his novels that feel specifically child-friendly.

It tells the story of Giorgio, a young philosophy student of Padua University who quits because philosophy is a stupid subject (something I wholeheartedly agree). He travels to the small German kingdom of Oberwesselburg to try and win the heart of Charlotte, the ruler. On the way he meets an old lady who gives him a beautiful bridal veil as well as magic scissors and thread. The old lady commands him to bring her the princesses golden heart in return for certainty in marrying her.

When there, he finds himself lead to stealing her heart by cutting her chest with the magic scissors, placing another object in there and then sewing her up. This happens three times (of course). The first time he replaces her heart with an apple that makes her jolly and sweet until a maggot inside drives her mad. The second time he replaces the heart with a lamb’s, but it isn’t, it’s a pig’s and it makes her hoggish. The third time he replaces it with a rose, which makes her sweet but she fades as the summer does. Eventually, he replaces her golden heart, throws the witch’s presents in a river and runs away…only to bump into the princess who reveals her love for him. They marry and all live happily ever after. There is left the implication that the princess was also the witch, testing her suitor.

There is also a really lovely bit where they describe why they love each other and are completely honest. They list some physical and personality characteristics but conclude they don’t know why - I thought that was a nice touch.
This is a well told an interesting fairy tale, charmingly illustrated by Fritz Wegner but I wasn’t as engaged as I am by his more usual stuff. A better Leon Garfield take on a fairy tale is ‘The Wedding Ghost’, which is a very strange, chilling retelling of ‘Sleeping Beauty’.

The Apprentices (1-12)

‘The Apprentices’ is a sequence of twelve stand-alone short stories which have loose links where characters from some of the stories turn up in others. Each of the main characters is an apprentice of some kind. Garfield has, in the past, created stories about all sorts of settings and jobs that I’ve rarely seen tackled anywhere else. Novels include a depiction of the life of a coach driver, the running of a pleasure garden and a number of journeys with traveling players. ‘The Apprentices’ adds lamplighters, funeral directors, midwives, printer’s devils and all number of other jobs.

Garfield is his usually unusual self - I only had my notepad for some later stories but I noted a description of one apprentice where it say that ‘when God made him, he must have had his elbow jogged.’ I also enjoyed chemists regarding their patron saint as ‘Thomas, who thrust his scientific fingers into the wounds of Christ’. 

Many of the stories have a strange, slightly religious base with references to the nativity, the devil and songs of angels. Some of these stories lean more heavily on the unnerving than others but as a whole, it’s subtle and makes the whole sequence feel slightly askew as if more is happening than first appears.

The first story is one of the strangest. A lamplighter gains an apprentice called Possul (Apostle) who serves as a linkboy, lighting people home for money. The lamplighter regard his duty to bring light as a religious duty (even if he is not very good at his job) and Possul carries on this idea. Possul is a strange boy, rarely speaking and of ghostly paleness, who, when he lights people home happens to show them the terrors of London’s night. He appears as a light in the darkness in a number of the stories and even inspires a novel in a later story called ‘Thine is the Kingdom’.

That novel appears in my favourite story, ‘Tom Titmarsh’s Devil’. It’s a love story between a wild girl who works for a printshop and the more guarded apprentice of a bookseller. She brings ‘Thine is the Kingdom’ to the bookseller to commission. It’s a nightmarish trip through London, inspired by one of Possul’s journeys and ends up criticising the church’s ignorance of the evils outside. When this book is condemned to be burnt, the bookseller’s apprentice tricks the illiterate hangman into burning a different book instead. This was my favourite as I loved the character of the printer’s devil and the terrifying nightmare.

Each story was different, with a different set of characters, a different way of telling the story and a different tone. Though some were better than others, it doesn’t suffer from the problem of most short story collections where some are far better than others - each is enjoyable on its on it’s own terms.

I completely recommend this collection as an engaging and unique work told with Garfield’s usual style and quality. I did wonder, however, what it is about bird names in the book - there were people called Larkins, Swallows, Starling, Hobby, Hawkins, Parrot, Falconer, Linnet, Nightingale, Titmarsh and many more. 

Fair’s Fair

This is another of Garfield’s rare excursions into writing a children’s book definitely written for children. It’s also one of his books that drifts into the nineteenth century and the area of fairytale. It’s about Jackson, a homeless orphan who shares a warm pie with a large, threatening dog. The dog has a key around his neck so Jackson follows the dog to its home. It’s an empty mansion with another orphan called Lollipolly, who find food being left every day for them. There’s a twist ending but it’s pretty clear.

Despite its simple story and far simpler telling, Leon still knocks a few stylistic balls out the park. Snowflakes are described as ‘fighting in the wind’ and the steam of Jackson’s warm pie is described as not ‘being his soul going to heaven’. It’s also the only Leon Garfield book I can think of that is told in the present tense.

This isn’t vital Garfield but it’s a nice little curiosity in his work. - Also, I've been reading it with some children who aren't so into reading, and they've been loving it.

Next time will be Bostock and Harris and The December Rose and I will eventually get round to reviewing his completion of The Mystery of Edwin Drood, which I am greatly enjoying. Coming up will also be a Dr Johnson Reading Circle discussion of Boswell and Johnson's Scottish books as well as a review of the double-bill plays about Hogarth currently playing in Kingston Upon Thames.

Till then.