Sunday 3 May 2015

Neo-Victorian Voices: The Convictions of John Delahunt: A Story of Murder, Andrew Hughes (2013)

In today’s post I’m considering whether Neo-Victorian writing is simply a sub-genre of historical fiction through blogging about Irish writer Andrew Hughes’s debut novel, published in 2013, The Convictions of John Delahunt: A Story of Murder.

The pure definition of ‘historical fiction’ is a novel, or other work, where ‘the plot takes place in a setting located in the past’. Reading this, the texts I’ve looked at previously as part of my Neo-Victorian Voices series – Michael Cox’s The Meaning of Night and John Harding’s Florence and Giles – and Hughes’s novel definitely all fall into this genre.

The Convictions of John Delahunt: A Story of Murder (2013)
However, it is very noticeable that, in the case of the Cox and Harding, other important elements, which we’ve come to expect from historical fiction (at all levels of quality), are missing. First, there is the inclusion (or here exclusion) of actual historical figures. A key tenant of historical writing has been to offer a new perspective on famous historical events, or to educate the reader about events and/or people whose stories have previously been ignored. While The Meaning of Night uses the conceit of a newly discovered manuscript (labelled ‘Fiction?’), none of its events or characters have basis in truth. The novel is an escapist fantasy, and it fits self-consciously into the traditions of Victorian literary sensationism. Florence and Giles is even more indebted to a literary (rather than an historical) inheritance, as it is a reworking of a Henry James plot. There are no ‘real’ characters here – only layer upon layer of fiction and artistic response.

Hughes’s project, however, is very different. John Delahunt was a real person, hanged for the murder of Thomas Maguire (a real child) in Dublin in 1841. Hughes’s project is far removed from Cox’s or Harding’s – it’s about composing a compelling narrative from the details we know of Delahunt’s life, combined with his own imaginative embellishments. What’s more, it is presumed (correctly!) that the reader’s first response on finishing the novel will be to want to learn more about the text’s veracity – an Afterward supplies the answers we may have wondered about throughout and also adds the information (for example about the execution) which Delahunt (the narrator) cannot, in some ways acting not as a note on the text, but as the novel’s final chapter.

Along with the insertion of real people, historical fiction is also often rich in detail about the times in which it is set. Of the three novels, again The Convictions fits into this mould most comfortably. Having worked as an archivist and previously published a book on nineteenth-century Dubliners (Lives Less Ordinary: Dulin’s Fitzwilliam Square, 1798-1922), Hughes has a lot of knowledge of the period to draw upon. He does this very skilfully, with a light touch, suggesting the political milieu of the time without turning what is a suspenseful crime novel into a political history, and weaving details of forgotten ways of living seamlessly into the plot. One of the most effective passages is the partial description of a backstreet abortion, yet Delahunt’s wife’s struggles with the termination and contraception don’t just add colour – they’re integral to the story.

Andrew Hughes (1979 - )
Some details were occasionally overwhelming (although they may well be welcome to readers with a better grasp than me of Dublin’s geography!) and the inclusion of other ‘real’ characters from the period (e.g. Professor Lloyd and Dr Moore), as outlined in the Afterward, seems more like an in-joke for the author than of substantive benefit to the text. But largely, Hughes does a wonderful job of propelling us into the city as it stood in the 1840s and informing us about its society, without ever coming off as didactic.

While Florence and Giles is almost totally free from this kind of factual peppering, the level of detail in The Meaning of Night was also extraordinary, but occasionally more gratuitous than it comes off in The Convictions. For me, the distinction comes from whether there is a need to introduce a detail. (Does it advance the plot? Does it explain a character’s motivation?). Without a reason behind each detail, it risks changing the tenure of the novel, making it into some sort of immersive time travel, rather than a narrative entertainment.

So where does this leave our categorisation and definition of Neo-Victorianism? Some of the concerns of the movement I’ve discussed in previous posts (e.g. the prioritisation of previously repressed voices and the self-aware revisitation of standard Victorian literary tropes from a modern perspective) suggest something more is going on here than a spate of historical novels set in the Victorian period. If we take Neo-Victorianism as combining nineteenth-century setting with twenty-first century sensibilities and preoccupations, there is very much a space for The Convictions in this category. Hughes’s first novel is ‘historical’, but, in its very modern interrogations of personhood, morality, sexual relationships, power, and corruption, it has a strong claim to ‘Neo-Victorianism’ too.

Which novel should the Secret Victorianist read next as part of her Neo-Victorian Voices series? Let me know – here, on Facebook or by tweeting @SVictorianist!

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