Posts Tagged ‘The Ruby in the Smoke’

Philip Pullman: The Tiger in the Well

July 30, 2022

     Another ripping yarn, and with characters and events linked to the others. Reading this, years after meeting His Dark Materials, you can see an accomplished writer, assured of his audience, shaping up to write his masterpiece. There is, for example, a clear forerunner of the sinister Mrs Coulter and her monkey daemon in the villain of this novel, whom we previously met in The Ruby in the Smoke; indeed you can see how the whole concept of the externalised aspect of the personality and soul which a daemon is, may have developed from here.

We are thrust head-first into an outrageous situation and mystery: why should anyone forge a marriage and then a divorce with the aim of seizing a child? Pullman also hints at the darker side of sexuality in Victorian times: paedophilia is not a late twentieth century evil, and some readers may recall Anthony Horowitz digging deeper into this murky cesspit in The House of Silk, one of his excellent additions to the Sherlock Holmes canon.

Pullman makes clear the potential for unfairness in the application of the law of the land, with the balance in favour of those with money and influence, and also in favour of men in an age when women were mere chattels. There is no protection for the innocent or the underdog when they are faced with corruption and crooked lawyers and policemen.

Equally, Pullman creates strong female characters, independent women with determination, living towards the end of the nineteenth century when women were getting their struggle for equal rights and the vote under way. There is a strong advocacy of social justice in the book, and somehow Pullman just manages to avoid being preachy, and sliding into a roman à thèse for young adults.

The plot of the novel involves a revenge plot consequent on the dénouement of The Ruby in the Smoke, and a good deal focused on poverty in the East End of London, as well as the anti-Jewish pogroms in Russia which led to an influx of immigration, consequent exploitation, and resentment by the local population which was fomented by unscrupulous politicians for their own dark purposes: Pullman seems to be suggesting that nothing much has changed in a century or more in this country. It’s pretty unputdownable, really: well-written, fast-paced and with plenty of twists in the plot, cliff-hangers, and interesting incidental characters. I’d have loved meeting a novel this well-written in my schooldays of exploring Stamford Public Library.

Philip Pullman: The Tin Princess

July 29, 2022

     This is another of the four Sally Lockheart novels, detective stories of a sort, set in the late nineteenth century. It’s clearly a tribute to Sherlock Holmes in some ways, in terms of time and place, and there is also a gang of helpful street children clearly modelled on the Baker Street Irregulars. There are also links to an earlier novel in the series, The Ruby in the Smoke.

What interests me is that Pullman’s target audience is evidently younger teenagers, even more so than with His Dark Materials, but his readers are treated from the start as intelligent and thoughtful, and Pullman weaves in complex ideas and themes without ever being patronising, preachy or moralising.

It’s a fast-paced story, as Pullman knows that is what his readers will expect. The setting quickly shifts from Victorian London to an invented, small Central European kingdom threatened by the global ambitions of both the German and Austro-Hungarian Empires. This was perhaps the aspect of the plot that I found least convincing, but then I’m an ageing reader well-read in history, and of Eastern European origin myself.

Pullman doesn’t avoid emotional attachments between his characters, and complex relationships either; nor does he dwell too long or in too much detail on them. It really is quite eye-opening to see how such a skilled writer has a sharp focus on the people he’s writing for. As in his better-known series His Dark Materials and The Book of Dust, Pullman shows his strong belief and trust in uncorrupted young people, who will be decent and do the right thing given the opportunity; corruption and deceit comes with adulthood, and this theme is obviously developed more thoroughly and in a much more complex manner in the later books, where innocence and experience are more foregrounded, and the myth of the Fall is much deliberately under the microscope.

It’s a ripping yarn in which despite the heroic efforts of the young, in the end evil triumphs – Pullman is only being harshly realistic here, and in our sad world, young people need such lessons – and adults are exposed as corrupt, servile and hypocritical. And Pullman does ultimately leave his readers with a glimmer of hope at the end, in that there are also some decent grownups in the world too. But it’s clear, good must be fought for, cannot be assumed.

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