Monday, August 22, 2011

*Derby Day, by DJ Taylor

Chatto and Windus, 2011
405 pp

Derby Day " all London an airing , an 'outing,' makes a break in our overworked lives and effects a beneficial commingling of the classes."
 -- Gustave DorĂ© and Blanchard Jerrold ("The Derby", in London: A Pilgrimage, 1872)

DorĂ© and Jerrold made their observations about the annual Derby happening at Epsom, but they are also describing DJ Taylor's newest novel.  Like his book Kept (which I read some time ago and really enjoyed), Derby Day is subtitled "A Victorian Mystery," and there is enough intrigue and foul play scattered throughout the novel's 400+ pages to keep a mystery reader happy. At the same time, it's a novel that brings together several characters from different walks of life in Victorian England, many of whose fortunes hang in the balance based on the performance of a race horse named Tiberius.  Derby Day does indeed offer its readers a "break" in their "overworked lives": although his Victorian narrative style may not be everyone's cup of tea, the story is a great deal of fun. And I would have bought this book even if it had not appeared on this year's longlist, because of my previous enjoyment of Taylor's Kept.

In Lincolnshire, Samuel Davenant is the owner of a horse named Tiberius, who had
"won the Epsom's Two Year's Old Plate, altogether ran away with the Trial Stakes at Abingdon and absolutely tied with the Duke of Grafton's Creditor for the Middle Park Plate."
Although the horse has great potential in the upcoming Derby, Davenant is deeply in debt, scarcely able to feed it. After the disappointing purchase of two other horses on the back of Tiberius' reputation ("thinking that where one animal had gone others might follow"), and an unsuccessful  lawsuit against a neighbor, Davenant has mounting bills that he cannot pay. He's a quiet man, preferring the solitude of his home, Scroop Hall, where he lives with his daughter Evie. At the same time, in London, Mr. Happerton is a rakish young man who is fascinated with Tiberius, noting that "There are men who would pay five thousand to have him running under their name." Happerton knows Davenant's financial situation and has been quietly buying up his debts, secretly planning to take Tiberius when the bills come due and Davenant is forcibly pushed into bankruptcy.  The problem is that his scheme requires an outlay of capital which Happerton doesn't have.  To remedy that situation, Happerton marries Rebecca Gresham, daughter of a well-to-do lawyer.  But while his father-in-law's money isn't enough to fully finance his plans, Happerton's not too worried: he is a man ready with a few more tricks up his sleeve.

The action is not as cut and dried as one would think and there are a number of surprises that unfold as the novel progresses, keeping things moving with rarely a dull moment in the story. The sense of place is vividly evoked as the reader travels through the fens and wild landscape of Lincolnshire (where it "would not have been strange to peep between the fence posts and see Lady Dedlock out a-wandering"), as well as through the upper-class London neighborhoods and their counterparts in the seamier sides of the city. And Epsom, just before and during the Derby, comes alive with its sights, smells, noise and carnival-like atmosphere, all beautifully imagined by the author.  Subplots abound as in any good Victorian drama, and the ever-expanding cast of characters presents a range of personalities: the cream of London society, a young governess in the bleak Lincolnshire countryside, an enigmatic jewel thief whose past is his major preoccupation, a disgraced army officer who frequents the billiard halls (a nod to Thackeray's "English Raff," from his Book of Snobs,) an older jockey on the portly side and the crowds who attend the Derby, to name a few.  Twists of fate and "odd conjunctions" bring these people together from time to time, making for great dynamic among the characters, but most especially between Happerton and his wife.  While Mrs. Carmody's Book of Genteel Behavior of 1861 offers the Victorian woman tips about married life and one's place in society, Mrs. Happerton turns Mrs. Carmody's advice on its head, to the point where the reader begins to doubt who really has the upper hand in that relationship.

Derby Day is one of those books that will appeal to a wide variety of readers -- it is filled with plotting and machinations that will satisfy readers of melodrama and mystery, it offers an intriguing portrait of a slice of time for historical fiction readers, and its constant nod to Thackeray throughout the novel will make Victorian fiction readers happy as well. If I have any complaints, they are minor -- the amount of subplots is a bit dizzying at times, as are the number of new characters that appear here and there that tended to distract my reading flow.  Otherwise, Derby Day is highly entertaining, and I can definitely recommend it.

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