Monday, December 8, 2008

Kept, by D. J. Taylor

First, what this book is not:

* A romantic novel. The cover and name might suggest that it is one of those dark romantic novels involving a maiden subject to the whims of her master. Not so. Even though there is a young woman locked up.

* A journey into an England that never was. Mr. Taylor takes great pains to create an England that really was, in fact, although the main characters did not exist. He relies on a great deal of research and even includes excerpts from actual journals from the time.

And what it is:

It's fundamentally the story of a woman who, after losing a baby in childbirth, appears to become depressed and unhinged. After her husband's sudden death she is moved to the house of a friend of her husband's where she is, in fact, "kept". Her removal is for some reason not advertised so family members and friends do not know where she is. A few of them choose to find out and to find out why it is a secret.

This story, though, is blended with the stories of others, intertwined and woven with these others. We get to meet each character in turn and to watch how he or she progresses and eventually how each is connected to the widow Isabel Ireland. Most particularly we are presented with the unsavory character of Mr. Pardew. We occasionally see the world from his point of view; more often we see him go about his business as he might have been seen by some fictitious observer ("An onlooker...would perhaps have noted..."), a literary device frequently used in Victorian writing.

The novel is, in fact, written in much the style of England in the 1800s, but references and comparisons often have an ironic or humorous bent that likely would not have been seen in such literary works.

Mr. Pardew becomes a major character by way of his indulgences in various nefarious schemes that bring him money and others grief. He even goes so far as to develop a plan to rob a great deal of money from a train - a robbery that did, in fact, take place and with similar details (The Great Train Robbery of 1855).

Richly peopled with interesting characters, this novel is one to be savored, one that can be enjoyed bit by bit over several days. Better this way, I think, than read quickly in one long sitting.

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