A Ghost Story
As the clocks go back and the evenings grow colder – and we approach Halloween – it’s definitely time for a spot of Victorian Gothic fiction. I haven’t read Diane Setterfield’s very successful Thirteenth Tale, but I simply couldn’t resist the prospect of her most recent book, Bellman & Black. To my pleasure, it delivered all that it promised and I polished it off in two days. It reminds me, on a smaller scale and in a less ethereal manner, of Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell. It has the same sense of everyday life set awry by something haunting and eerie, hovering at the corner of your eye; and it has the same sensitivity to the language of the time, giving the book an air of 19th-century authenticity without sacrificing its lively readability.
William Bellman is ten years old when, showing off his lovingly-crafted catapult, he kills a rook in a tree near his country home. It unsettles him, but the memory is soon submerged among hundreds of other childhood memories and, as time passes, the boy becomes a youth and the youth a man and other, more important matters command William’s attention. His thirst for knowledge and his resourcefulness lead to a job as assistant to his uncle at the family’s mill, while his cousin Charles – the rightful heir – dallies in Italy. Under William’s shrewd eye the mill grows ever more successful: the processes, the quality of the cloth and the benefits offered to its workers makes Bellman’s Mill a wonder of the industrial world.
But William’s life is not to be as simple as that: all his worldly success can’t cushion him against tragedy. A series of events brings him into contact with a mysterious man dressed all in black, with whom he has a half-drunken conversation one night in the village graveyard. When William comes to his senses, he has a dazzling business plan in mind, which promises to become even more successful than the mill. Throwing himself into every detail of planning, forecasting and stocking, William begins the path that will lead him to Regent Street and the opening of Bellman & Black: London’s foremost emporium for mourning goods. Here you can buy anything from crepe to leather gloves to tombstones, black-bound memoranda books, and clothes for every conceivable stages of the mourning cycle. In Victorian London, where funerals are growing ever more lavish, William’s vision simply cannot fail. But his frenzied activity hides a paralysing fear that begins to claw its way into the deepest recesses of his mind. Who is the evasive Mr Black? How can William find him to pay him his share of the profits? And why, even after all these years, is he unnerved by the merest thought of a rook?
The rook is a skilled survivor… his cry is harsh and grating, made for a more ancient world that existed before the innovation of the pipe, the lute and the viol. Before music was invented he was taught to sing by the planet itself. He mimicked the great rumble of the sea, the fearsome eruption of volcanoes, the creaking of glaciers and the geological groaning as the world split apart in its agony and remade itself. This being the case, you can hardly be surprised that his song has not the sweet loveliness of the blackbird in your spring garden. (But if you ever get the chance, open your ears to a sky full of rooks. It is not beautiful; it is magnificent.)
Setterfield conjures up the simplicity of a country community and the busyness of a great London department store with equal facility. I always enjoy reading a book where the author evidently relishes the act of writing, and she interweaves her story with meditations on rook lore (or crows or ravens), as well as dropping little corvid allusions into the main flow of the prose. Not only is her writing very enjoyable, but she’s obviously done a lot of research to familiarise herself with mill-work. Despite my instinctive distrust of Industrial-Revolution novels (largely to be blamed on Dickens and Hard Times), the intricate series of processes fascinated me. And one of the most enjoyable things about the novel as a whole was that, while Setterfield lovingly described the mill and the shop, she didn’t feel the need to explain too much about the larger issues. Rather, she simply lets the story’s unsettling weight grow heavier on the mind. The end result is a deliciously chilling Gothic fairytale – not a horror story, but something with a bit of a period frisson about it – which is equally informative on the cultural and mythological history of rooks, and Victorian mourning practices. Thoroughly recommended for an autumn read, preferably by the side of a roaring fire after a yomp through frosted fields with clouds of cawing birds soaring overhead.
I imagine that many of you will already have read The Thirteenth Tale. Should I give it a go? And are there any other chilling historical novels that you’d recommend to enliven the long, cold winter evenings? (Nothing too terrifying, please – I have a lively enough imagination as it is…!)
P.S. For a more critical take on the novel by someone who has read The Thirteenth Tale, and found this wanting in comparison, head over to She Reads Novels for Helen’s thoughts.