While all of the neo-Victorian novels I have written about so far in this series owe an enormous debt to writers who lived in the nineteenth century, Lynn Shepherd’s The Solitary House (published as Tom-All-Alone’s in the UK) is only the second to rework and borrow heavily from a famous Victorian text (the first was John Harding’s 2010 Florence and Giles which I blogged on here).
Shepherd’s mystery is a story set in the world of Charles Dickens’s Bleak House (1852-3), fused in the final pages with Wilkie Collins’s The Woman in White (1859). She argues that she was able ‘to create a space between these two great novels, where [she] could locate a new and independent story of [her] own’.
It’s an interesting premise, but the terms of Shepherd’s experiment are slightly unclear. In some cases she borrows wholesale, especially from Dickens, using Bleak House’s most famous characters, including the lawyer Tulkinghorn, Inspector Bucket and Lady Dedlock. But elsewhere the rules are bent and characters changed to fit the new (and much more gruesome!) story. Esther becomes Hester, Mr Jarndyce Mr Jarvis, Ada Clara and Richard Rick.
As someone who knows Bleak House so well I found myself getting a little confused, unsure which plot points remained intact, and which information I was meant to be privy to as a reader, at each point. I’m almost inclined to agree with one Amazon reviewer who wrote that he/she ‘suspect[ed] someone who hasn't read Bleak House will enjoy it more than someone who has’.
Where Shepherd doesn’t turn to Dickens for inspiration is in incorporating passages of light relief. This novel is oppressively dark, without the humour offered by the Jellybys and Turveydrops. She’s at her best in graveyard scenes, grim discoveries, and action sequences. Lovers of modern crime fiction will enjoy her decidedly unsanitary London and it’s hard not to be drawn in by the sensory descriptions of this dangerous and violent city.
But whether you care about the protagonist – disgraced former policeman Charles Maddox – is another story. I don’t know if things would have been better had I read the first Charles Maddox mystery – Murder in Mansfield Park (2011), based on Jane Austen’s 1811-1813 novel – but I struggled to connect with the central character.
Maddox isn’t a brilliant detective. He is repeatedly stuck and has to go to his great uncle for help, in his slightly more coherent moments (as the older man is suffering from dementia). He is quite colourless as a character, with backstory - for instance his young sister’s kidnap - taking the place of true personality development. I think perhaps the novel suffered from the scale of its ambition in this respect. At less than a third of the size of Bleak House, The Solitary House still has a huge array of characters, making it difficult to effect the same level of intimacy with the protagonist we expect from modern detective-driven fiction.
In many of the neo-Victorian novels I’ve looked at – most recently Michel Faber’s The Crimson Petal and the White – there’s also been an interesting examination of the gender politics of nineteenth-century fiction, but, although The Solitary House is a story all about the abuse of women and children by aristocratic men, don’t expect this novel to pass the Bechdel test. If a female character is introduced, odds on she’ll be a) murdered, b) prostituted or c) abused (and probably all three), which is disappointing as much more interesting things could have been done here, even with a well-off white male protagonist.
Most unsettling of all is the character Molly – Maddox’s servant girl who is black and remains mute throughout the book. Shepherd relies on her readers’ discomfort about Molly’s position and her master’s treatment of her, but doesn’t give a satisfying conclusion to this storyline. As with the treatment of Collins’s and Dickens’s texts, I was left feeling frustrated by this aspect of the novel and a feeling that, with more care and revision, the text could have been substantially better.