Since the days of Adam, there has been hardly a mischief done in this world but a woman has been at the bottom of it. “Barry Lyndon” William Makepeace Thackeray
This is not a quote used in “Derby Day”, but a pertinent one I think! It is not just the acknowledgement and a couple of quotes from Thackeray that shows D.J. Taylor’s affinity and connection with the 19th Century novelist.
Plans were all in place to have this one read and reviewed just prior to the Victoria Racing Club Derby that was run here in Melbourne on Saturday 30 October. For those of you not from Melbourne, this week is our Spring Racing Carnival, a time where we have a public holiday (yes a holiday for a horse race – the Melbourne Cup) and four days of racing at Flemington with the Derby, the Cup, the Oaks and more. People party for a week, eat and drink too hard, catch up with old friends, the race meetings themselves getting about 400,000 attendees over the four days but not many of them get to see a race!!!!
Foolishly I thought the racing theme of this novel would inspire me through a quick read. But I have to admit it, this novel was a slog, at no stage was I inspired to snuggle up for a few hours of reading, nor was I staying awake until the wee hours unable to put the book down.
Subtitled “A Victorian Mystery”, written in Victorian prose:
Sky the colour of a fish’s underside; grey smoke diffusing over a thousand house-fronts; a wind moving in from the east: London. Clipstone Court lies on the western approach to Tottenham Court Road, slightly beyond Goodge Street, and is not much visited. There is a cab rank at which no cab was ever seen standing, and a murky tobacconist’s over whose lintel no customer in search of enlightenment from the copies of The Raff’s Journal and The Larky Swell that hang in the window was ever known to tread.
Interspersed with amusing quotes from “A New Etiquette; Mrs Carmody’s Book of Genteel Behaviour (1861)” (which scant research by myself shows is a fiction of Taylor’s doing, although I only did a quick check via Google):
The newly married young lady, fresh from her wedding tour, will generally find that the first few months in her new home are not a time of unalloyed pleasure. A wife will very properly devote her full attention to her husband, but a man will, necessarily, have a dozen extraneous interests: his business; his profession; his club; his stable; his acquaintance. Prudent is the wife who can accommodate herself to these schemes and happy the young woman who can survey them with a fond and conciliating eye…
And in the style of early Dickens’ or William Makepeace Thackeray’s novels with numerous concurrent characters coming into and out of the action. At one stage a Mrs Smollett is briefly mentioned and interestingly enough I had been thinking of Tobias Smollett and his “Adventures of Peregrine Pickle” or “The Adventures of Roderick Ransom” only a chapter or two earlier, “Derby Day” is created in a similar style but has nowhere near the pathos or caustic critique of the times.
The main protagonist is a Mr Happerton, who acquires a horse, Tiberius, that is favoured to win the Derby by none too honest means. The story covers his relationship with his wife and her ailing father, the fate of the previous owner of the horse, his daughter and housemaid, as well as his neighbour, Happerton’s side kick, the police, a mysterious jewel thief, as well as a couple of shady characters that bob up from time to time. There is more with new characters being introduced late in the novel, but unlike Dickens or Smollett their introduction seems quite false and almost forced.
I reserve judgement on this one as it was very well written, in what would be a difficult style to emulate, and wonderfully researched, but for some reason it didn’t grab me. Primarily because of the main character – I couldn’t care less about his fate, his motivations, nor his circle of so-called friends. And the opportunity to develop a deeper female lead (Mrs. Rebecca Happerton) seems lost to me, whilst she’s mysterious and not understood by neither her father nor her husband she is presented in a similar enigmatic style to the reader and to me this was an opportunity lost.
I can understand why this didn’t make the shortlist and it is probably one that I’ll forget I’ve read in a few years time, but overall a well constructed novel and one that would translate well to a BBC drama, with the downfalls, the period drama, the interdependencies, the “race to the finish line” and everyone’s fate all tied up in the running of the Epsom Derby.
I’m going to have a short break before I tackle the 600 pages of the last of the longlist – Alan Hollinghurst’s “The Stranger’s Child”- electing to have a quick read of a friend’s first novel.