Posts Tagged ‘Victorian London’

Gibson & Sterling: The Difference Engine

June 18, 2019

819+mIobt3L._AC_UL436_ I’m a serious fan of alternate histories; I like to imagine all sorts of ‘what if?’s. Here’s quite a famous one from the early days of steam punk. I’ve read it several times, but not for about ten years so it was time to take another look.

Gibson and Sterling create a convincing and fascinating alternative Victorian Britain deftly though the use of lots of details, in a similar way to how Philip Pullman builds his alternate Oxford in His Dark Materials. The industrial revolution is in full spate, powered by steam, but Charles Babbage’s difference engine has succeeded in permitting computerisation, mass communication and surveillance, again all steam-driven. However, the cost of all this has been a massive increase in pollution: the great stink of real history in Victorian London is far worse here.

Politically the initiative has been seized by radicals who have abolished the aristocracy and established a meritocracy; they are, however, still opposed by anarchists and Luddites, and further afield the territory of the United States has not coalesced into a single nation, but remains a number of smaller states with different interests, and Britain plays for power and influence there, and the statelets are also playing their own games over here. Palaeontology and evolution are at the forefront of contemporary science.

The characters are mostly well-rounded and most of them convince, as does the technology, which is probably the main delight of this yarn – the mechanised transport, card payments, mass surveillance and instant communication of our age translated to the 1850s. Victorian London comes to life as vividly as it does in Conan Doyle’s detective stories, and the central episodes of total anarchy set against the background of pollution are a tour-de-force of nastiness, menace and impending doom: revolution really does seem to be brewing…

It’s a good read, but this time I did find the plotting rather loose and unclear at times, with the action shifting somewhat disjointedly between different locations and groups of characters. Didn’t spoil the story, though.

Ellis Peters: Brother Cadfael

July 12, 2017

I’ve long been partial to these mediaeval tales, and a recent trip to a charity shop brought me a good deal closer to completing my collection, with three more novels. I like detective stories, I’m interested in mediaeval history and monasticism and have grown to love Shrewsbury and Shropshire over the years. Also, in the Abbey church today is Wilfred Owen’s monument. So, what’s not to like, as they say?

Ellis Peters (a pseudonym) was well-versed in place and time, as well as the daily life of Benedictine monasteries; though I don’t go looking for errors, I have not yet come across any. And, in the genre of the detective story, she does extremely well.

To begin with, her hero (?) Brother Cadfael, is no ordinary monk, called to a life of prayer and contemplation from an early age, and knowing nothing else: his was a mature vocation, after adventures in the Crusades, full experience of worldly life which we gradually learn about through the cycle of novels. Eventually we learn of his loves in the East, and that he has a son. As the abbey’s herbalist, he needs to be out and about collecting what he needs to make his remedies, and this allows him to pursue his investigations. He’s a very sharp observer, and his past gives him a broad knowledge and understanding of human behaviour that many of his fellow monks lack.

The formula for successful detective stories often requires a sidekick – a Watson to every Holmes. Ellis Peters develops, over the course of the novels, an interesting tweak: once the old Shropshire sheriff is succeeded by his deputy, a true friendship and effective working relationship develops between the religious and the secular, as Cadfael and Hugh Berengar work together to unravel a range of mysteries.

Obviously crime is a key element of such fiction, but the kinds of crime are not the same through the whole genre: in mediaeval times murder, revenge, theft and concealed identity dominate; financial and sexual crime, blackmail and the like, which are more prevalent in recent times, are pretty much absent. And in an age where the rule of law is not firmly established in the same way it is now, it is much easier for criminals to flee and escape justice completely: the relative lawlessness and foreign jurisdiction of Wales are literally on the doorstep; the English crown and government is by no means secure in the mid-twelfth century, either… Like Holmes, who can be his own moral compass as a consulting detective and allow someone to avoid the strict penalty of the law if he feels it justified, so Cadfael too chooses at times not to reveal facts others have not managed to notice; his moral judgements are between himself and his confessor.

Atmosphere and continuity are further aspects of success in the genre: consider Conan Doyle’s masterly evocation of Victorian London, the largest metropolis on the planet at the time, ultra-modern, at the heart of a huge world empire and yet concealing much darkness, poverty and evil, or Raymond Chandler’s wealthy, sexy and sleazy California or Colin Dexter’s Oxford. Peters’ evocation of a mediaeval city, its religious and secular sides and its hinterland, is masterly, convincing and detailed; it builds up through the series of twenty-one books, and is often supplemented by carefully-drawn maps. We come to know the abbey in detail; the personnel change, as they would over a period of about ten years covered by all the stories; relationships and interactions develop over time just as does that between Holmes and Watson over the fifty-six stories of that canon.

Compared with other detectives and other times, I often feel there is not a lot of actual detection in these stories – the sciences that would support this in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries are obviously undeveloped – although a sense of mystery is sustained, solution of the mystery follows in the usual way by not letting the reader in on everything that the detective has observed or deduced until the very end, and often all is cleared up through a forced confession by the guilty party. The pace is leisurely, couleur locale is paramount, the characters are interesting: Ellis Peters is a full member of the club of master detective story writers. Easy and enjoyable reading.

The Annotated Sherlock Holmes

November 24, 2015

51WZ6k3-NzL._AA115_As I’ve re-read and listened to the stories, I’ve come to realise that the setting –Victorian London – is far more important than I’d realised, or given Conan Doyle credit for: the sense of pride in the largest city in the world, at the heart of the Empire, with its wealth and its grittiness and its underworld. The crimes are always mentionable, the details never dwelt upon, in the way such things are today…

The Annotated Sherlock Holmes – the second time such an enterprise has been undertaken – is three magnificently produced volumes, which I was given for Christmas a decade ago. Two volumes contain all the short stories in the canon, and the third volume the longer tales. The annotation is copious, detailed, and as all decent annotation is, on the page alongside the stories rather than tucked away at the back of the book, so that any and every note you want to read is instantly accessible. And the annotation is probably needed now, to enable new generations of readers to make sense of all the small details, places that have disappeared, and other minutiae that Conan Doyle has his characters refer to. There are photographs and line drawings from the time, maps and diagrams, and a chronology of the times so that one can situate world events, too, although it’s only when we approach the First World War that Holmes and Watson seem to be involved in the periphery of actual events. There are also many pages of references to scholarly articles on each of the stories that have been published in various magazines devoted to Holmes, over the years, and also web links, which are well worth exploring.

The two characters are still at the heart of the stories for me, and I still marvel at the way Conan Doyle developed the formula which so many other have since followed and copied: you need the two characters for their interaction, and, as I mentioned above, the sense of place provides a pretty secure anchor, whilst the chaos of crime unfolds and is then (usually) resolved. Colin Dexter put Morse and Lewis in Oxford, and for me, that combination also worked well, as does Ellis Peters‘ pairing of monk and sheriff in the Brother Cadfael series, with its Shrewsbury setting.

If you want a treat from someone in the festive season, then the three volumes of the Annotated Homes are a great idea. The only downside is that they are quite seriously weighty and so do not provide for a portable reading copy: you need a sofa to enjoy them, really. The best easily portable set remains the old (and only available second-hand) two-volume hardback set from John Murray which is what I take on holiday…

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The Man Who Never Lived and Will Never Die: Sherlock Holmes

January 2, 2015

51jCL3VW8ZL._AA160_A wonderful, unexpected Christmas gift: this book was published in conjunction with the major exhibition at the Museum of London (which I haven’t managed to get to). I thought it might therefore have been a general recycling of all sorts of stuff about Holmes, but no, it’s a serious work with some excellent, detailed and analytical essays on various aspects of the great detective and his past.

There are half a dozen essays in the book, including a first-rate contextual introduction, which convinced me how much of the plots of many of the stories in fact takes place out of London: when I think Sherlock Holmes, I automatically think Victorian London, but it’s clearly nowhere that simple, and apparently Conan Doyle only lived in London briefly, so much of the encyclopaedic knowledge he gave Holmes actually came from maps and directories. There’s a very interesting chapter on the original illustrations of the stories, which did so much to build up the physical impression of the man, and this links into the history of magazines, serialisation and the development of the stories’ popularity. Another essay develops this, analysing how the stories are structured and how they create and manipulate the reader’s response.

There are dozens of marvellous photographs and postcards of Victorian London, and plenty of contemporary maps, too, as well as plenty on art and artists at the time, with the paintings of Monet and Atkinson Grimshaw featured among others. All of these do help with the visualising of London as the canvas or backdrop for the characters and stories, even if London isn’t always the seat of the action.

Although I often wished the book had had better copy-editing and spell-checking before it got to the printers, it’s certainly a real addition to the serious work on the writer, stories and contexts: if you’re a Holmes fan, you need to find someone to buy you this…

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