Thursday, April 2, 2009

Sure I Know the Queen

By Jodie

When I was at school we were taught that the Victorians were the embodiment of an ideal English spirit. They were stoic, athletic, serious minded and far too busy inventing to be interested in sex. Compared with the dashing cavaliers of the Stuart age and the riotous indulgence of the Tudor period the Victorians sounded like the dullest kind of ancestors. Cajoled into taking a course on Victorian society in university I still couldn’t shake the prejudice I’d formed when I was ten. I skipped lectures and scowled my way through the saccharine parts of ‘Oliver Twist’. However, I’m beginning to think this was the biggest mistake I made at university, at least the biggest mistake I made while sober. Two novels I’ve read recently suggest that modern authors are determined to peel back the layers of stoicism, and undergarments associated with the Victorians to increase popular awareness of the way contemporary historians now view this period.

The blurb for Clare Clark’s ‘The Great Stink’ will lead readers to pick it up expecting a slightly spooky, but familiar feeling story of secrets, lies and detection, set in the sewers of Victorian London. That is not what they will find between the book’s covers. Instead Clark presents her readers with a dark descent into madness, self harm and post traumatic stress. Clark’s hero William May has returned from the vicious battles of the Crimea with serious psychological damage, but is required to hide this to hold on to a job working as an engineer on London’s evolving sewer system. In the absence of understanding or treatment he finds his own way of coping, by hiding in the sewer tunnels and violently self-harming. His fragile mental state begins to fracture, and Victorian society reveals how brutal it can be when a man’s behavior doesn’t fit the mould.

William is an example of how the repression of the Victorian world created the people it despised. We are told William is a happy young man before he goes to war, fond of drawing plants and engaged to a girl he loves. When he returns he strives to recapture the interests of his previous life, as well as his mental stability, but as he is unable to talk about his feelings he is denied the chance to heal. So he becomes the crazed mental patient that everyone from his previous life views with fear and disgust, although their stifling rules of decorum have forced him to this point. Clark has created a new way of approaching the darkness hidden in the impeccable manners of the Victorians, and the crushing pressure exerted on those most in need of support.

The heroine of ‘Dora Damage’ by Belinda Starling breaks every kind of taboo present in Victorian society. She takes over her husband’s bookbinding business when his arthritis cripples him. To make a living she must bind and read material considered very unsuitable for a lady, beginning with medical texts then moving on to erotica and pornography. She takes on a freed slave to help in her workshop and begins a relationship with him. She employs a young, unmarried woman who has a history of trouble with men. She continues to work during her mourning period when her husband dies. All around her other characters are engaging in activities the Victorians would have seen as vices: Dora’s husband is addicted to opium, her apprentice is ‘not interested in having a sweetheart’ and her employers are selling illegal literature.

Starling does not settle for presenting vice that is now a kind of historical curiosity, like several of those above. She has some of her characters break one taboo that will genuinely shock readers, and this transgression adds to the delicious sense of gothic, spine tingling horror that pervades much of the book. Starling takes the most salacious hidden secrets of Victorian times and combines these with villains to really fear.

To my delight the Victorians are being revealed and reinvented in contemporary fiction. I’m glad I had the chance ( to find out how wonderfully wicked they could be.

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