This is Dicken’s year, right ? There are amazing series on BBC 4 Extra these days (Little Doritt last week, Nicholas Nickelby this week), so that I feel as if I am surrounded by all things Victorian. And Mary Hooper’s young adult novel is a wonderful example of a Victorian novel written in a post-Victorian era. Very true to the atmosphere, with a great sense of detail, yet keeping the momentum of the Victorian classic plot.
Grace Parkes is a female Oliver Twist, if you will. Or a new Little Princess. Like them both, she is an orphan and lives with a few pennies a day thanks to the small trades of Victorian London. Like them, she actually is the heiress of a fortune that will befall her after lots of twists (ah) and turns. (I don’t think that I’m revealing some secret here – but the happy ending we foresee from early on sort of helps the reader deal with the grim realism of her hardships). The fact that she’s a girl (and that the novel is written now, when even cruel and tragic events are named and not hidden or vaguely alluded to for the sake of girlish innocence) makes her life as a pauper even more dangerous than Oliver Twist’s. After her mother died in poverty, she and her mentally disabled older sister have been put into an orphanage, where she has been raped and got pregnant. (This is clearly a young adult book, but for what age? I suspect that young girls aren’t innocent for very long anymore. Anyway, the scene is not explicit nor graphic, but clear enough in my mind).
Events in this book are unashamedly dark, especially as the book opens when Grace has to bury her infant by slipping the body into the coffin of a rich deceased lady. A few chapters into the book, Grace gets to enter the strange (yet striving) business community of the funeral industry (she gets a job of a professional mourner for ceremonies because she looks suitably pale and gloomy) and the tale nearly turns gothic! There are also very ugly baddies and a chase in the thick London fog, that will keep the readers thoroughly entertained.
On the serious side, they are lots and lots of very good research carefully put into this novel (especially on the importance of mourning in the Victorian society after Prince Albert’s death), and never in an insistent, edifying way. It made me think of the historical “bible” on Victorian life by Judith Flanders: The Victorian House, and also on the Victorian fascination for all things morbid and murderish, of The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher by Kate Summerscale.
Whatever the reasons for reading this book, they’re all good! It really makes me want to grab something else by Mrs. Hooper.