After I finished graduate school, I took a lengthy vacation from the works of Charles Dickens, until last year's "Masterpiece Theatre" production of BLEAK HOUSE inspired me to revisit that master of the 19th-century novel. When I picked up D. J. Taylor's new historical mystery KEPT, I was immediately reminded of Dickens's work, with its rich atmosphere, vividly drawn characters and glimpses into the lives of Victorian England's high and mighty and low and seedy alike.
Likewise, Taylor's book turns as if on a dime in virtually every chapter, focusing on kitchen maids and heiresses, police investigators and lawyers, even small-time criminals and various other unsavory sorts. The main plot of this richly multi-plotted novel centers on Isabel Ireland, a young widow whose husband Henry died suddenly following a horseriding accident (or perhaps the mysterious circumstances are slightly more sinister...). Rumored to be mad, hidden away in sealed-off rooms of the ominous, eccentric collector Mr. Dixey, Isabel is unreachable by virtually everyone, even her most determined relatives. But, as readers glean from the accounts of dozens of interrelated characters, Isabel --- and her late husband --- are far from forgotten.
The reader's efforts in piecing together the evidence of a variety of crimes --- from murder to train robbery (modeled on the Great Train Robbery of 1855) --- are paralleled by those of police captain McTurk, a new breed of law enforcement officer described as both "thorough" and "single-minded." And he'd have to be, too, to wade through the letters, memos, diary entries and narratives that combine to form the text. That's not to say that readers have to pursue the mystery doggedly themselves; in fact, the best way to read KEPT is to just get lost in its world, to allow oneself to become absorbed in these Victorian intrigues and romances, betrayals and secrets --- the mystery will take care of itself.
Like many other modern novels based on Victorian characters and themes, KEPT offers today's readers subtle commentaries on Victorian mores even as it delves deeply into its environment. Numerous miscommunications, failed attempts to locate relations (particularly Dixey and Isabel) and unanswered letters underscore the contrast between our own ultra-connected lifestyle and that of the Victorians. Accounts of Isabel's madness, delivered primarily by her husband, doctor and (male) guardian (Isabel herself, when she finally gets to narrate, is genuinely confused about her own sanity), will resonate with anyone who has read THE MADWOMAN IN THE ATTIC or similar feminist critiques.
Even the snide commentaries of the egg poachers who stock Dixey's taxidermy collections offer understated remarks on Victorian practices: "'What we're after, there's few enough of them to be had now....But think of it! These might be the last of them in all England. That's worth a ten pound note if ever a thing was.'"
Undeniably viewed through a modern lens, KEPT nevertheless manages to preserve the authentic flavor of the best Victorian novels.
It's probably no wonder that D. J. Taylor has been able to construct such a well-developed, convincing Victorian world. In addition to novels, his previous works include biographies of George Orwell and William Makepeace Thackeray, as well as critical studies of more recent English literature. The obviously well-read author's acknowledgments mention "the direct influence of Charles Dickens, George Eliot, Elizabeth Gaskell, George Gissing, Jack London, Mary Mann, Henry Mayhew, George Moore, Alfred Lord Tennyson, Anne Thackeray Ritchie, W. M. Thackeray and Anthony Trollope." Of course, readers of these influential authors will be the biggest fans of KEPT, and will delight in finding the allusions --- some obvious, some hardly so --- that litter Taylor's prose.
Well-informed by his literary precedents and creative enough to make this novel uniquely his own, Taylor has created a dense, ambitious Victorian novel that is sure to satisfy fans of those 19th-century masters.
--- Reviewed by Norah Piehl