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by D. J. Taylor
Chatto & Windus, February 2006
448 pages
16.99 GBP
ISBN: 0701178957

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

Anyone who has read the work of critic D J Taylor as he evaluates the prose of others cannot fail to be impressed by the man's own knowledge and style of writing. The author of KEPT writes both fiction and non-fiction, and is a biographer whose work evidences painstaking research.

The research he expended on his book on Thackeray would no doubt have given him much insight into Victorian times as well as familiarising him with contemporary writers of the period. It would be interesting to discover at what point Taylor was inspired to make his own venture into the style of the time and whether he could not bear to lay aside all the hard work he put into the biography so decided to invest some of it into his own fiction.

In KEPT a prologue of sorts comprises two newspaper articles, one from August 1863 detailing the death of Henry Ireland and the other, from December 1866, concerning the discovery of the body of an elderly man apparently killed by a wild animal, and the discovery of an insensible young lady confined in the gentleman's house.

The tale from that point becomes quite complicated, told, as it is (in the style of various authors) from several viewpoints, including at one stage from a supposed extract from the diary of novelist George Eliot. There is the servant girl Esther who arrives at Easton Hall to work there, together with Sarah and footman William, both destined to play important roles in the tale. Easton Hall is owned by James Dixey, an ardent naturalist who commissions men of dubious reputation to procure both rare eggs and strange creatures for his collections.

Henry Ireland's widow Isabel is a delicate woman possessed of a fragile grip on sanity. Prior to his death, Ireland requests that his father's friend James Dixe, should look after Isabel should he, Henry, die prematurely -- surely a remarkable request since at the time of asking Dixey is already elderly while Ireland is only 30.

This leads to the wealthy heiress becoming a virtual prisoner in the house of the impecunious Dixey. One point I noticed was that the chapters devoted to Isabel's story slip from past to present tense, then back again. This device made me wonder if it was indicative of the lady slipping from periods of sanity to sickness then back.

At the same time as all this is going on, Richard Pardew, a dealer in discounted bills, is hatching an ingenious plot, which became known as the Great Train Robbery of 1855. All the major players of the tale, from the servants at Easton Hall through to James Dixey, Isabel Ireland and lawyer Crabbe are somehow affected by or involved in the crime.

Taylor acknowledges his debt to various authors including Dickens, Thackeray, Jack London (for a chilling chapter set in the Canadian Yukon) Anthony Trollope and others. Readers may even amuse themselves with a 'spot the author to whom this particular pastiche may be attributed' game. The author, too, has based his stories on historical events and real people.

The tale, given all its characters and settings, is necessarily dense. The writing is carefully crafted to resemble that of authors of the time, despite occasional anachronisms. Sometimes the writer seems almost to misuse a word -- I have a particular grievance against his fondness for the words 'demure' and 'demurely' which, at times, seemed remarkably inapt -- but on the whole, the work is impressive and the mystery only gradually resolved.

Reviewed by Denise Pickles, March 2006

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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