416 pages, Orion
Review by Pat Black
We just can’t let the Victorians go. As readers and writers, we use any excuse to go back to the days of pea soupers, hansom cabs and those incredible whalebone corsets. In any other sphere of the arts, this kind of obsession with the past might seem old hat. Think of Oasis trying so hard to be the Beatles.
But Victoriana – is it a genre to itself? I suspect it is – provides an altogether different experience. Elijah’s Mermaid touches on the tone and texture of the great doorstoppers of the late 1800s, while keeping us grounded in reality and present day concerns.
Essie Fox’s follow-up to the well-received The Somnambulist paddles in the same pool. It concerns web-toed Pearl, an orphan found dumped on the banks of the Thames as an infant who is taken in and brought up in a brothel. Once she hits 14 – more than old enough for vile pimps and punters to take a shine to her – she is auctioned off to the highest bidder, who turns out to be a famous artist, Osborne Black.
Running in tandem is the story of Elijah and Lily, two orphaned twins whose tragic backstory is given an even more Dickensian turn when they are taken in by their kindly grandfather, the children’s writer Augustus Lamb, at Kingsland House. The house’s name is one of many references to Charles Kingsley’s The Water Babies, and indeed water is a recurring motif. As the twins grow up in this idyllic country house setting, Elijah begins to show a talent for the emerging art of photography. Along with Lily, he visits London, where a chance encounter with Pearl in a freakshow changes the course of all their lives. When Elijah disappears after taking up an apprenticeship with Black, things take a more sinister turn, and Lily investigates.
The novel is written in a very sensuous style, mainly flitting between Pearl and Lily’s first person perspectives, with epistolary digressions here and there in the form of letters, newspaper reports and diary entries from various figures, including Elijah. It manages to be a full-blooded book bristling with passion, particularly when it comes to sexuality, while still maintaining the poise and stiff upper lip of Dickens or Henry James. Like Michel Faber’s The Crimson Petal and the White, it takes us into a demi-monde of low-lives and high stakes living, as much as it shines a light on proper, abstemious-seeming Victorian high society.
The bridge between the two worlds, of course, is hypocrisy, and it’s here that Fox finds her richest material.
In Osborne Black, Fox paints a perfect monster – a man in many ways out of his time, frolicking nude with Pearl in the surf in Italy and keen to disrobe her for his art. And yet, a jealous, controlling man who would seek to turn her into “the loony in the attic” – no cliché back in those times. He cannot bear the idea of his bride, who is more than half his age, making a connection with any other man. This reaches an awful crescendo when he chances upon the young Italian boy he has hired as an assistant, painting a nude portrait of Pearl.
The idea of these great Victorian men, all bristling moustaches, pocket watches and grave intonations, living a double life and visiting brothels with nary a care in the world, is well outlined by Fox. It’s a jarring shock for the reader to be torn away from Pearl and Lily’s heartfelt thoughts – the former passionate and guileless, the latter dreamy and fanciful – and placed into Elijah’s journal, encountering bawdy revue shows and sexual encounters that wouldn’t look out of place in any modern nightclub.
The imaginative world of the Victorians is a deep quarry. There are many references left here and there, the main one being Charles Kingsley’s Water Babies. In her afterword to the book, Essie Fox explains the settings and influences she brought into play for her novel. Some of this was unexpected, particularly the preoccupations of Charles Kingsley, who was actually a vicar in his working life with occasionally toxic opinions.
The book casts a knowing glance at its characters and subject matter, but the irony is never overwhelming, the story never undermined. Although tonally different, and dealing with an alternative world of magic and myth, the book Elijah’s Mermaid reminded me of the most was Susanna Clarke’s wonderful Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell (what’s she up to, anyway? I’d love to see a follow-up to that). It drinks deep from the wellspring, but adds that little bit of modern spin and perspective.
It’s no surprise that we should return to the Victorians so much in our fiction and movies. The major artworks and fictional heroes of the time are still very much alive – they’re canon, and more importantly they’re public domain. Sherlock Holmes, Fagin, Pip, Long John Silver, Little Nell, Mr Hyde… Like the cities they built, the Victorians’ literature is still around and will long outlive us. In Britain in particular, there are obvious political reasons for wanting to go back in time. That era reminds Britons of when London was the centre of the civilised world. When the British Empire sneezed, the rest of the world said “bless you”. Those days are long gone.
But the whole world comes back to these characters, stories and settings again and again; revisiting, rebooting, reinventing, rediscovering. They helped make publishing. Their dreams are our dreams. As modern readers and writers, the Victorians made us.