D.J. Taylor, a British writer of formidable accomplishments — several well-received novels, as well as biographies of William Makepeace Thackeray and George Orwell — but little known in this country, has pulled off an impressive and wholly engaging feat in “Derby Day.” Set in London and environs during a few weeks in the reign of Queen Victoria, it is not merely a work of historical fiction but one written in a language appropriate to its time — i.e., it is a Victorian novel, the prose of which brings to mind Thackeray (of course) and Dickens, yet never smacks of cuteness or contrivance. It is delicious fun and can be read purely as such, yet it is also a serious novel about a society caught between the familiar and the new, in which “the world is changing” and leaving many people behind.
The Derby to which its title refers is the great horse race that has been run at Epsom Downs for centuries, an event that brings together the whole range of British society from the highest to the lowest, from “swells in frock-coats” to “tiny, starved boys” to “butchers’ wives from Shoreditch” to “apprentices in cheap imitations of the fashion” to “persons in the last extremity of poverty huddled up in ditches, recumbent by the rail, or frankly begging along the course.” The dramatic race itself, with its entirely satisfying outcome, occupies only a couple of paragraphs, but Taylor lavishes page after page on the human spectacle:
“In Epsom everything is in turmoil, with ten thousand visitors crowded into a town that usually holds eight hundred. The inns are crammed to the rafters and there are people sleeping in the fields beyond Cheam and Ewell village. In London and its surround a hundred thousand go to sleep with the thought that at four, five or six o’clock they must rise up and make haste for the railway station, or the cab station, or the road. Beyond this — beyond the Home Counties, beyond England even — there are sportsmen making uneasy calculations about the procurement of evening newspapers and their proximity to telegraph offices. The court knows about it. Half of parliament at least will be attending it. The bench of bishops will not go unrepresented, and the diplomatic embassies cannot be kept away. . . . A radical politician has condemned it, and a Methodist divine preached against it, but one might think that something which unites a widow in Kensington Square, an apothecary in St. John’s Street and the wife of a Hoxton chandler is more democratic than the reverse. Chelsea is going, in carriages and coaches-and-four. Clapham is going in tax-carts and bang-up ponies. Kensington and Brixton are going by way of the Southern Railway or a succession of omnibuses, and Whitechapel and Poplar will be arriving on foot, for what is a sixteen-mile journey under the June sunshine when there is Saturnalia in view?”
Much of the excitement swirls around a horse named Tiberius, a beautiful creature but one about whom “there was some mystery.” As the novel opens, he is owned by Mr. Davenant, “a man of about forty, who had lived in Lincolnshire all his life,” a “widower, which people said had made him melancholy, and he had a backward daughter, a girl of about fourteen with white hair and a big moon face, which people said had made him more melancholy still.” He farms the same hundred acres his father and grandfather farmed before him, but he does so with little enthusiasm and to no apparent gain. His world is slowly falling to pieces, which makes him an inviting mark for George Happerton, an utterly unprincipled London swell who has his eyes on Tiberius.
Happerton is a glorious creation, “a tallish, rather florid-looking man of thirty-one or thirty-two, well dressed in a showy way, taking his place among the sporting gentlemen by virtue of a pair of top-boots and various pins and ornaments distributed about his clothing.” He is “quite a well-off man, people said . . . yet there was some mystery about how his money was made, whether it came from discounted bills, or commercial speculations, or, as was commonly thought, from the turf.” He is a “modern man,” a bounder and a cad, yet it is entirely impossible — for me, at least — to do anything except root for him as he pursues his various schemes. These include marriage to Rebecca Gresham of Belgrave Square, who “married Mr. Happerton to escape a mode of life that was uncongenial to her” and is an exceptionally cold fish, extracting money from her doddering father, setting up a bold burglary to help finance her husband’s gambling and generally hanging out with as dissolute (and amusing) a cast of characters as one could hope to meet in a work of fiction but not, perish the thought, in life itself.
One of these is Captain Raff, a former army officer who now serves as, in effect, Happerton’s subaltern, running distasteful errands for him and being kept mostly in the dark: “He suspected that Mr. Happerton was playing some game from which he was being excluded, but he could not quite see how he was to bring his suspicions out into the light.” The same goes for the reader, who senses early on that Happerton is up to “some low game” but for most of the way is not entirely sure what that game really is. Only when Rebecca confronts him does he give more than a hint of what is afoot. “There’s no room for sentiment, you know, in these affairs,” he tells her. “It’s a question of establishing how much money can be made and the right way to go about making it. Do you understand? I am not trying to vex you. I am trying to make our fortunes.” He is trying, that is, to fix the Derby, but not until the end does the reader learn exactly how he means to do this and exactly how much success he will enjoy.
Happerton’s pursuit of tainted riches and Rebecca’s ambiguous connection to that search make for a delightful story, but that is only the beginning. Taylor has assembled a splendid group of secondary characters, only a couple of whom can be described as more or less virtuous but all of whom are as human as they could be. These include Davenant, the feckless proprietor of those 100 acres in Lincolnshire; Glenister, his neighbor and friend, “a crackit, people say, a useful Lincolnshire word meaning a bachelor fond of his comforts, resistant to change, or even fearful of the married state”; Miss Ellington, hired to care for Davenant’s backward daughter, who doubtless would respond to Glenister’s advances if only he would offer them; Pardew, “a man of middle age, perhaps in his later fifties, but still vigorous,” who finds his way into Happerton’s net and adds yet another chapter to a long life of crime; and Major Hobbins, “a spoiled, indolent, lonely man who had made a living out of horses for over forty years” and who is, Happerton believes, the key to the accumulation of the Happerton fortune.
All of these characters move about in a world that is Victorian England to the core, with its monied elegance banging up against wretched poverty, its complicated systems of credit, its filthy streets and fetid air. Taylor scarcely leaves the reader wanting to inhabit this world, but at the same time he leaves one delighted to have visited it and to have shared in its dissolute yet inviting pleasures. “Derby Day” is on every count a winner.
By D.J. Taylor
Pagasus. 405 pp. $25.95