I have just read two Victorian pastiches, back to back. One, The Peachgrower's Almanac, an entirely unexpected and mercurial delight (on which, more later); the other, Kept by D.J. Taylor, amongst the more unsatisfying novels of my acquaintance. You'll excuse a short digression: There is a wonderful moment in Josh Whedon's short-lived TV series Firefly where two of characters consider a cheap wooden ornament, and argue about whether it represents a duck or a swan. Kaylee (who is ever hopeful) thinks that it is a swan, carved by someone 'longing to see a swan'. I was initially tempted to label Kept a similar sort of bird - a Victorian pastiche written by someone who had read a pretty good description of what constitutes a Victorian novel - in the way of story, style, tombre - but has, alas, never set eyes on the real thing. Because, surely, you couldn't write a novel this dead, this devoid of life, if you'd modelled it on Dickens or Eliot or Trollope.
Except, clearly, that is not the case: because .J. Taylor is also the author of a biography of Thackeray, and has undoubtedly read a dozen more Victorian novels than I have. So perhaps in the event it isn't that he has read too few of them, but rather that he has read too many. So many that Kept is Victoriana squared; an intellectual exercise in pastice, with knobs and bells and whistles on, that fairly screams 'I'm a Victorian novel god-damn it!' until you start to feel faintly embarrassed that you bought it from a 3for2 table in the 21st century. Taylor acknowledges the 'direct influence' of no fewer than 10 of the great Victorians in his afterword (including Dickens, Trollope and Eliot), and the looming presence of several others, Wilkie Collins first amongst them, is felt throughout. Taylor seems to have been engaged in a sort of Spiritualism - the chanelling of the great ghosts of Victorian letters. It is a shame that the end product is a such a Frankenstein's monster of a book, unworthy of the authors who inspired it and, I imagine, the author who wrote it.
At which point I should pause to say a few soft words in Taylor's defence. First, I enjoyed Kept to an extent; it is by no means an unentertaining novel. Second, I consider that it is an accomplished novel, insofar as it can be said to accomplish anything much at all. Third, D.J. Taylor can write. He knows his way around a sentence, makes good use of his thesaurus and has almost captured that lovely self-deprecating cadence that is the unique province of the English writer in the ninetneeth century (although it is a little too studied for my liking). Fourth, he has a keen, delighted eye for the natural world and the appearance of people in it that I cannot fault. Thus:
The clergyman, shovel hat pulled down over his forehead, hands plunged into the pockets of his coat, strides swiftly over the wet sand. It is low tide, and the sea is far away: half a mile at least lies between him and the flat, rippling breakers. At his feet have been flung interesting deposits from its passage: knots of purple-brown weed, spars of driftwood, a coil of rope, a string of onions. To his left hand side, behind the dunes, pine trees rise into the pale air. The clergyman sees neither the trees nor the flotsam and jetsam at his feet, for his mind is bent on other things. Tall, thin, vellum face emerging about a white stock, Gainsborough could have painted him, placed him on a horse, even, to emphasise the curve of his legs, but this is not Gainsborough's age. A mile behind the shoresthere is a tarmacadamed road and a few miles beyond that a railway line, and in Wells, on the boundary of the clergyman's parish, a photographer has recently opened up a studio.
This passage represents all that is good about Kept, I think. The narratorial authority; the confident sub-clauses; the sharp awareness of a world in transition, from Gainsborough to the photographer, and the clergyman inbetween, halfway between the age of his Godly dominion and his profession's inexorable decline in a faithless new world; the inevitability of sand, sea, pines and the in-out of the tide.
That, however, is as far as my appreciation extends. You may notice that I have said nothing particular about the plot yet. That is because there is no real plot to speak of; or rather, there is a plot but it doesn't belong to Kept but to half a dozen other novels and snatches of history. Here, for example, is the Great Train Robbery of 1855, and a mad woman kept in the attic, first by her husband and then by the trustees of his will, and here is a villain with a pet mouse, and here is an indecisive young man trying to get elected to parliament, and here is another young man lost and injured in the Canadian wilderness, and there is a young servant girl who saw too much, and there another who went to the bad. Taylor is a cannibal, who patches his novel together from bits wantonly ripped off his predecessors. In certain lights this a very clever thing to do (at least, the broadsheet reviewers seem to have enjoyed it) because it distracts the reader from the work in hand as they ferret about in their memories for references. But it proves feeble most respects. It divests the characters of any autonomous vitality - you cannot love or hate them, since they are all pieces of a sly jigsaw slotted together for the jest rather than made-up for their own sakes. And it means you cannot see or feel things as a whole because of the jutting, disjointed pieces to the puzzle. The wilds of Jack London's Canada do not make for an easy bed-fellow with Dickens' London, for example. Then, there is the problem of spark.
Spark is originality, either in the tale, or the telling of the tale, and Kept has little of neither, and what there is ends up being choked off by Taylor's efforts to mimic his model. Occasionally it verges on the truly awful:
A sealed casket holds no charms for me. A locked door seldom makes me yearn for a key and the right to admittance. Rather, my fasincation lies with great people and the moment when their greatness has, albeit temporarily, been put aside. How does a bishop conduct himself when, retiring to the bosom of his family, he divests himself of his mitred hat? What does Lord John, coming back from the Treasury chambers, say to his wife, his butler or the domestic who hands him his tea? Half the charm of fiction resides in these imaginings. Write a novel about a ploughman in his fields or a City Croesus striding about the floor of 'Change with his hands plunged into his trouser pockets and no one will read it, but let a distinguished nobleman, the heir to broad acres and the confidant of half the Cabinnet, tell his wife that he has the gout or that he will lend no more money to her scapegrace brother and the public is instantly agog.
This paragraph is, for me, a horror of composition. Let us leave aside that it's basic sense is difficult to parse because the balance of opposites Taylor uses doesn't quite carry through to the conclusion, and consider the voice instead. It oozes with the overweaning arrogance of the narrator (different in tone entirely to the narratorial authority of the previous quote), which has engaged itself to make a statement about fiction that suits the theme of the chapter that follows but clashes with the action of the book generally. There is something smug about the way it declares its meat and drink to be the foibles of human life, its subject humanity itself. Big talk for a crabbed hodge-podge of a book. This same smugness pervades the novel as a whole - it seems to know its own quality; knows just how perfectly it has mastered its genre - to the extent that Taylor almost seems to be laughing at us, his readers.
It makes me wonder if Taylor is trying to play a trick on the idea of Victorian pastiche, which is clever but not in the least bit funny. Kept is the dictionary definition of the novel-type: an imitation of original works; a farrago; a jumble. The entire point of it seems to be the intellectual exercise of resurrecting Victorian styles, hence the cacophony of techniques - one minute diary entries; the next letters; the next first person; and after that the third-person omnipotent - and the mish-mash of narratives. And yet it seems to have been written with the aim of making it wrong. What emerges is so discordant and ungainly on close inspection, so variously Victorian as to be unnatural, that I have to believe it was written to prove a point. The point being that Victoriana is somehow unseemly, that the original cannot be recreated, and that the only type of pastiche that works is the kind that mocks itself.
Either that or Taylor has missed the boat entirely, and failed to understand that the great Victoriana writers of the last decade - Sarah Waters, Michel Faber, Susanna Clarke - aren't trying to be Victorian writers. They are using a literary mileau to tell uniquely 21st century stories; their voices are original even if the echo sounds Victorian. They have founded a New Victorian, a mode inspired by the nineteenth century but not aping it. It is this newness that gives their work the spark that Kept so determinedly lacks. I remain uncertain whether Taylor meant it to be a failure to prove a point or whether he was simply unsuccessful in an earnest attempt, but that hardly changes my final verdict: give me the reckless vim of The Peachgrower's Almanac over the careful imitation of Kept any day.