Tag Archives: Jane Austen

“The Solitary House” by Lynn Shepherd: A Review, with remarks on Charles Dickens’s “Bleak House”*

2 May

It might be said that, for great literature, pastiche is the sincerest form of flattery. The works of Shakespeare, Jane Austen, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, among others, have been particular favorites in the art of pastiche, because of the wealth of opportunity they offer for variation and creative amalgamation. Not to be confused with parody, pastiche is “(a) a literary, artistic, or musical composition made up of bits from various sources; potpourri; (b) such a composition intended to imitate or ridicule another’s style” (Webster’s New World Dictionary, 1982). The element of parody can be present, but pastiche can equally well be a work of respectful imitation and delightful re-invention.

Such are the mystery novels of literary specialist Lynn Shepherd, whose first work, Murder at Mansfield Park (St. Martin’s Press, 2010), turned the tables on Austen’s heroine Fanny Price and found new possibilities for Mary Crawford and the other young people gathered at the venerable country house. In particular, she plucked Charles Maddox from his relatively minor role as a prospective player in the “Lovers’ Vows” private theatrical and repurposed him as a very excellent detective.

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For her second mystery, Shepherd has pushed the clock ahead a few decades to the 1850s and she has found her inspiration chiefly (but not exclusively) in Charles Dickens’s Bleak House. In The Solitary House (Delacorte Press, 2012; titled Tom-All-Alone’s, in the UK), Shepherd brings her careful attention and knowledge to produce a new detective story that worthily comments on its original, varies it meaningfully, and finally stands on its own.

 

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G. K. Chesterton, still one of Dickens’s most perceptive and appreciative critics, wrote: “Bleak House is not certainly Dickens’s best book; but perhaps it is his best novel.” John Forster, Dickens’s friend and early biographer, agreed in his estimation of Bleak House: “The novel is nevertheless, in the very important particular of construction, perhaps the best thing done by Dickens.” Shepherd avows that Bleak House is Dickens’s masterpiece; her affection and appreciation for the novel is everywhere evident. In The Solitary House, she makes full use of what Bleak House offers, even adapting a selection of Dickens’s chapter titles, rearranging them, and giving them a new significance in the context of her own detective mystery. Here we meet again the inscrutable lawyer and repository of his clients’ secrets, Tulkinghorn, and the jovial, but keen-eyed and relentless Inspector Bucket.  (Dickens’s illustrator Hablot Knight Browne, “Phiz,” chose to illustrate the jovial side in the “Friendly Behaviour of Mr. Bucket”; image scan by George P. Landow.)

 

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Thankfully, the Maddox family has jumped from the fictive world of Austen to take a decisive role in this tangled Dickensian world. Young Charles Maddox, the great-nephew of the detective in Murder at Mansfield Park, has followed the elder Maddox into his profession, and both have important connections to Bucket: Bucket, it turns out, was the elder detective’s protégé, whereas young Charles Maddox has just lost his official place in the detective police force because of “insubordination” in a clash with his boss, Inspector Bucket. Young Charles is a rough-and-ready fellow–rough around the edges from all the buffeting he has received, but still ready to pursue the truth despite all costs. At one point, after he has taken a beating, he says to his great-uncle, “As far as I’m concerned, this case is only half over. I have Tulkinghorn’s money, and I intend to spend it finding out exactly what it is he doesn’t want me to know” (p.136).

After reading about 80 pages of Shepherd’s book, I went in search of a copy of Bleak House for a re-read and refresher. I wanted to appreciate in detail what she was doing, and although I can’t claim to have caught all her skillfully placed references, I found much pleasure in comparing the two books. For example, she begins her novel, as Dickens does, with “London. Michaelmas term lately begun, and the Lord Chancellor sitting in Lincoln’s Inn Hall. Implacable November weather.” But then she takes up the symbolic topics of the mud and fog and riffs on them with her own associations and from her own research into Victorian London.  This Prologue also introduces the reader to her Narrator. Like Dickens, Shepherd tells her story by means of a double narrative, from an anonymous third-person narrator and from a first-person account (Esther’s, in Bleak House; Hester’s, in The Solitary House).  Dickens’s third-person narrator is knowing, but not omniscient. Critic Jeremy Hawthorne comments on this important structural innovation: “It is important to stress that not only is Esther ignorant of the anonymous narrator and his narrative, but the anonymous narrator is–although of course aware of Esther as a character–ignorant of Esther’s narrative” (p. 61). In The Solitary House, the third-person narrator appears to be contemporary with readers today, often referring to “we…now,” and inserting references that post-date the time period of the narrated story, for example, mentions of “Flanders fields” (World War I), the “Baroness of Holland Park” (detective author P.D. James), “the very model of a modern teenage geek” (colloquialism of today, with a hint of Gilbert and Sullivan), and “we would call it post-traumatic stress” (from modern psychology). Also deftly managed is Hester’s first-person narration, which is helpfully set off in a different typeface; it draws upon the notorious quirks of Dickens’s Esther Summerson (e.g., her combination of modesty and self-congratulation, her lack of self-awareness), but Hester manages in the end to tell a story quite her own (which I won’t reveal). Mr. Jarndyce has morphed into a “Mr. Jarvis” and, as with Hester, his character is both recognizable and different.  Only in the combination of these two narrative threads do we discover the purport of a mystery which turns out to have some very grisly features–not for the squeamish.  It has some themes in common with Anthony Horowitz’s recent authorized Sherlock Holmes pastiche, The House of Silk–a likeness which tells as much about the moral concerns of the 21st-century as it does about their Victorian inspirations.  Yet The Solitary House is firmly grounded in its Victorian sense of place, whether the setting is a lonely country house, Tom-all-Alone’s, Seven Dials, or “Cook’s” rag-and-bone shop.

Pastiche stands alongside the critical essay as an alternative means not only to explore structural devices, but also to underscore character. The way Shepherd has introduced and developed Inspector Bucket pays tribute to Dickens and to the crucial role the so-called “New Police” force was playing in Dickens’s life and thought at the time he wrote Bleak House.  It is often noted that one Inspector Charles Field was the prototype for Bucket, even down to the habit of emphasizing his points with a very mobile “forefinger.” Dickens wrote, in his magazine Household Words, about an evening spent “On Duty with Inspector Field” and along with other similar pieces, these show Dickens’s high regard for the profession of detective which had only become an official part of the police force in 1842, ten years before he wrote Bleak House.  In his excellent book, Dickens and Crime, Philip Collins remarks on the “laudatory, indeed awestruck” tone of the Household Words articles on the police, and cites “the contrast between his [Dickens’s] admiration for the police and his contempt for, or indifference toward, other public functionaries–politicians, magistrates, officers in the armed services, civil servants and local government officials” (196). Collins surmises that Dickens felt comfortable with detectives, who usually came from lower class origins, although they moved in all circles of society. Further, he admired their intelligence and energy and their habit of bringing matters to swift completion, if possible, rather than dithering–again, qualities the indefatigable author possessed.

In The Solitary House, Inspector Bucket becomes involved with a new mystery (although the problem of “my Lady Dedlock” is apparently going on in parallel, off-stage). But is he the same man? It is one of the delightful puzzles of this novel to discover the true character of Bucket in Shepherd’s re-imagining of this singular figure in the annals of early detective fiction.

I hope that reading The Solitary House will put many readers on the trail of Bleak House as well, but as I’ve said, this new mystery works confidently on its own, and can be read with pleasure even if one hasn’t read Bleak House.  Shepherd shows a sure hand in the management of incident and suspense. As witness to this, I’ll mention that after coming to the end of one of her chapters, “Bell Yard,” I looked up and had the delicious sensation, precious to inveterate readers, of realizing that I had been completely involved and had forgotten that I was reading. This was just one such occasion in a literary mystery worthy of its illustrious forebears.

References

  1. Chesterton, G. K. Chesterton on Dickens (Intro. by Michael Slater). London: J. M. Dent, 1992.
  2. Collins, Philip. Dickens and Crime (3rd ed.). New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1994.
  3. Dickens, Charles. Bleak House (Ed. by G. Ford and S. Monod). New York: Modern Library, 1985. (Original work published serially from 1852-53)
  4. Dickens, Charles. “A Detective Police Party,” Pt. 1, Household Words, Vol I, No. 18, 409 (July 27, 1850).
  5. Dickens, Charles. “A Detective Police Party,” Pt. 2, Household Words, Vol I, No. 20, 457 (Aug 10, 1850).
  6. Dickens, Charles. “On Duty with Inspector Field,” Household Words, Vol III, No. 64, 265 (June 14, 1851).
  7. Forster, John. The Life of Charles Dickens: The Illustrated edtion (abridged by Holly Furneaux). New York: Sterling, 2011. (Original work published in 3 vols. in 1872-74; full text online at http://www.lang.nagoya-u.ac.jp/~matsuoka/CD-Forster.html)
  8. Hawksley, Lucinda Dickens. Charles Dickens: The Dickens Bicentenary 1812-2012. Insight Editions, 2011. [Chap. 25, “Dickens and Detectives” has a nice little section on Inspector Field]
  9. Hawthorne, Jeremy. Bleak House (Critics Debate series). Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1987.
  10. “We Mean Nothing But a Little Amusement,” http://austensmansfield.wordpress.com/category/charles-maddox/ [A nice blog article on Charles Maddox and the “private theatricals” in Mansfield Park]

*Note: FTC Disclosure. I received a free advance copy of The Solitary House from the publisher, as a prize randomly drawn from entries in a contest on the author’s website.

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“Intimations of Austen” by Jane Greensmith: A Review

5 May

 

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The most successful fictional characters have a way of persuading new writers to tell, retell, and reshape their stories. Such a writer is Jane Greensmith, a prodigious reader and insightful literary blogger who has chosen to let some of Jane Austen’s characters fashion untold and alternate histories for themselves in her story collection, Intimations of Austen. These stories succeed, to my mind, because, like Jane Austen, Jane Greensmith has a distinctive narrative voice that I am delighted to meet again and again.

That is not to say that her stories are all alike–not at all! They present a fascinating range of themes, emotions, and fresh points of view, all handled with clarity and command of authentic detail. Whether she chooses to speak as Mrs. Bennet, Fanny Price, Fitzwilliam Darcy, or Henry Tilney, her writing shows a particular sensitivity for the tone and texture of a marriage after the momentous dénouement of a proposal–the arc of relationship between husband and wife, or between lovers separated by circumstance or misunderstanding, sometimes over many years. And she can conjure this depth of feeling in just a few pages, with a few fraught exchanges or revelations.

In “Three Sisters” Greensmith transforms the uncertainties of the marriage market in Austen’s world into a crisp and cautionary fairy tale. The character of each sister is deftly revealed through the desires of her heart and the suitor she chooses.  In “The Last Baby” Mrs. Bennet unburdens her heart which aches for an infant son who died and for the unrealized communion of minds she wished to have with her husband. Perhaps all of Austen’s readers have paused a moment to sympathize with her plight of five marriageable daughters having little or no dowry, but Greensmith  makes us look deeper into the marriage when it was just husband and wife, before the children came and after they were grown. In “All I Do,” the longest story, we enter an alternate universe of Pride and Prejudice, where the ending we know was derailed and delayed by decades.

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My favorite story is “Bird of Paradise,” in which newlywed Fanny Price returns with her husband Edmund to a home run by housekeeper Mrs. Danvers from Daphne duMaurier’s Rebecca! A brilliant narrative combination, which reveals something profound about a bride’s finding her happiness only insofar as she finds her true self.

I recommend these stories very highly for the pleasures they offer and for the “Intimations” they give of Jane Greensmith as a talented new fiction writer.

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