If you were reading in some piece of 19th-century fiction and suddenly a character uttered, "Come now, my friend! Have a little chopped liver and let's talk it over!" would you feel dislocated? As if Molly Goldberg had wandered into "David Copperfield" and offered him chicken soup? That's a part of my reaction to Leon Garfield's "The House of Cards," which, after all, lets you know on the jacket that it takes its period seriously.
"A Victorian Novel," it says, in large letters. And so it is, an often remarkable and always loving re-creation of the Dickensian mode. However, it's set, or a good deal of it is, inside the household of one Mr. Dolly, purveyor of "Famous Pickled Herrings and Continental Delicacies." A Cheeryble-ish character if there ever was one, Herbert Joseph Dolly is, nonetheless, Jewish, a fact that imbues "The House of Cards" with a schizoid identity.
Now, certainly there are Jews to be encountered throughout the literature of the 1800s, from George Eliot's Daniel Deronda to Dickens' Mr. Riah of "Our Mutual Friend," to name two of the better known. But the gemutlich Dolly establishment, with its fire blazing and board continually laid for guests, is a far cry from the miserable surroundings inhabited by the stock Jews--the moneylenders and shyster lawyers--of Victorian novels. Doubtless, this change is to the good and redresses a wrong, but it adds, unfortunately, an impression of anachronism--"Little Dorritt" with matzo balls on the side.
Thus, "The House of Cards" is, ultimately, similar to Garfield's effort of two years ago, when he wrote a "completion" of "The Mystery of Edwin Drood" that didn't quite come off, despite some wonderful touches. Clever, skilled, with its heart in the right place but not its head, Garfield's "Drood" was a too-obvious parlor trick.
Yet, if one can overlook (as I have trouble doing) its "have a little chopped liver" aspects, "The House of Cards" is really quite an amiable diversion.
Providing a definite contrast to the warm glow of the Dolly residence is the domicile of Mr. Walker, a teacher of languages, and his daughter, Perdita, the "little princess." They have been befriended by the Dollys and in the novel's scheme of things represent a whole grab bag of related popular Victorian themes: rags-to-riches, the found heir, the sensational court case ("Standfast v. Standfast"), the prodigal son, the baby left in a basket, not to mention the mysterious stranger and several others as well.
Here is a description of the Walker living quarters in Shoreditch: "They rented three rooms on a top floor in a short, blind brute of a street that by day was a fruit and vegetable market and, by night, a graveyard of the same. Cabbage leaves, like tattered bats, flapped in the wind, old dead apples gasped underfoot, and broken boxes, like burgled coffins, littered the way."
Or have a look at this passage, which comes on the eve--nay, the very instant--of one of the plot's major scenes:
"The world! Standfast v. Standfast--important people, not at all like Bishopsgate Street or Shoreditch--you can have no idea! Heard on the gravel path, like a regiment; heard coming up the stone stairs; heard in the outer room; an uproar of feet and angry mutterings . . .
"Standfast v. Standfast! Darkly flashing faces, shrugging furs, black gowns, check trousers, watch-chains, highly polished boots; and a mingled aroma of brandy, camphor, smelling-salts and horses.
"Spry Mr. Clarky darting hither and thither with chairs. Standfast seated on one side, and Standfast seated on the other, with versus somewhere in the middle--possibly with Mr. Walker."
From this can be seen what a gift Garfield does have for evoking the Dickensian idiom. Vivid, allusive, quirky, this prose style, when he pulls it out of his conjuring repertoire, is what carries the book. Not the plot, which pulls its punches, and not the characters, although a few--Mr. Clarky, for example, the lawyer's clerk--win through by sheer tenacity.
One could say that a good Victorian novel is like a suite of rooms deliciously furnished for our comfort; they open into each other--the plots and subplots--and are each decorated with all manner of captivating objects, that is, the descriptions and flourishes of the text. Virtue is rewarded, evil is banished and the merely unpleasant are made to slink away.
Leon Garfield, a talented author, understands all this and with enthusiasm tries to act upon it. To a certain degree he succeeds, and perhaps he has no intention of being letter-perfect. A man of the 20th century, he can't really help it if his Victorian rooms are situated in a high-rise with underground parking.