by Sarah Waters.
Virago, 549 pp., £12.99, February 2002, 1 86049 882 5
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The Crimson Petal and the White 
by Michel Faber.
Canongate, 838 pp., £17.99, October 2002, 1 84195 323 7
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Have you ever tried to write a Victorian novel? Here’s a beginning, with apologies to Sarah Waters and Michel Faber (and a nod to George MacDonald Fraser):

London, 1860. November. A pea-souper billowing up from the flotsam bobbing in the Thames. The gas lamps already blearing. Good things of day begin to drowse. The rookeries are emptying, and their birds of prey making wing to the West End.

Dollymops, cracksmen and gonophs are on the prowl.

Susan (up from Mrs Sucksby’s kitchen in the Borough) and Caroline (one of Mrs Castaway’s girls in St Giles) will hunt together tonight. Caroline is on the game, an alley-cat who’ll lift her chimmy for two bob (and a tanner for Mrs C). Sue has been brought up ‘by hand’ by Mrs Sucksby to be a palmer, a pogue-hoister, a dipper, a flimp: what in Borough argot they call a fingersmith.

Tonight, though, she’s a mutcher – a predator on drunks. Caroline will button for Susan – lure some tipsy greenhorn into a dark alley. One tap with the cosh then it’s off with his unmentionables to the translators. Mrs Sucksby will fence the wipers, the repeater and the pins.

No great risk. The garrotting panic and legislation against footpads is still two years away. It’s Liberty Hall on the London streets in 1860.

They walk down to St James’s. Nothing. Normally Caroline’s had her nancy jiggled two or three times by now. Reeling out of the Minor Club come a couple of swells. ‘Why,’ says Caroline, loud enough to be heard in Green Park, ‘if it ain’t Captain Flashie, VD – I mean VC.’

The swell, a military man with magnificent moustaches, turns to his pal and says, just as loudly: ‘Hoist that dollymop’s sail, Speedicut, and you’ll be pissing fish-hooks for three months. Got the chats out of your bush yet, Caroline?’

‘I’d rather be a martletop and steal snot rags from buses than do you, you toff bastard,’ she shouts back, good-naturedly, as he tosses a sov in the gutter. ‘Bet it’s snide,’ she shouts at their backs as they saunter off to Kate Hamilton’s place.

The girls amble on to the Arches – where, at last, they spy a four-square rig reeling out of a bar: kerchief, diamond stud and all. ‘Shop!’ whispers Caroline, ‘our first customer.’

Not as easy as it looks, I discover; even if, like Waters, you have a PhD in Victorian literature and the necessary cribs to hand. It can’t have been easy either for Faber, who reportedly spent 12 years writing and researching his (appropriately massive) novel. Some think it time well spent. Faber’s American publisher, Ann Patty, prefaces her edition of The Crimson Petal and the White with the declaration: ‘Dear Reader, You hold in your hands the first great 19th-century novel of the 21st century. In my 25 years this may be the most magnificent, courageous novel I have ever published. Magnificent because it can only be called a great novel, a tour de force, a novel that truly stands beside the Victorian classics.’ Admirers of Fingersmith might contest these superlatives. But, whichever is judged better (Waters has my vote), the fact that Faber has made it into the middle ranks of the New York Times bestseller list and Waters has been shortlisted for the Booker confirms that the neo-Victorian low-life, high-filth novel is doing well. To add to the buzz, Andrew Davies’s three-part adaptation of Waters’s first novel, Tipping the Velvet, has just been shown on TV. Waters’s tale of lesbian prostitution in the 1890s attracted publicity chiefly for the casting of Diana Rigg’s daughter, leather dildos and the practice alluded to in the title.

Both writers have been influenced by the wash of 19th-century pornography reprinted since the 1960s. Faber’s ‘genteel’ heroine, Sugar, has a second career (the first is prostitution) writing pornography, and her pseudonymous tales of lechery and revenge carry an epigraph worthy of Trollope’s Baron Banmann: ‘Vile man, eternal Adam, I indict you!’ The ‘genteel’ heroine of Fingersmith, Maud, was brought up to read aloud – without understanding - underground classics such as The Birchen Bouquet and The Lustful Turk for the delectation of her uncle. Waters and Faber would probably also acknowledge the influence of the seedy London chapters of The French Lieutenant’s Woman, first published in 1969. But Fowles’s revelations won’t cause a sharp intake of breath among readers of this latest generation of neo-Victorian fiction.

The originator of the genre is a work better than either Faber’s or Waters’s novel: Michael Sadleir’s Fanny by Gaslight. Published in 1940, this went through five impressions in as many months (despite Ministry of Supply paper restrictions) and was filmed as a lush Gainsborough melodrama in 1944, launching the careers of James Mason (the villainous Lord Manderstoke) and Stewart Granger (heroic Harry). The Balliol-educated son of an Oxford don, Sadleir was a publisher with Constable and eventually ran the firm. He was also the greatest Victorian bibliophile of his generation and his collection is now held in a library named after him at UCLA. He specialised in Trollope, and his biography and bibliography of the novelist remain standard works.

Fanny by Gaslight has a familiar sub-Jamesian framework. It is 1933. A young English publisher on holiday in France comes across a compatriot, a ‘genteel’ elderly lady who lost her nest-egg in the 1929 slump. The rainy day has come and she wants to sell her story. It is, the publisher discovers, an exciting one. Fanny, her testament records, was born in 1857 and raised as the daughter of Duke Hopwood, proprietor of the Jolly Warrior in Panton Street, off Leicester Square. The pub looks decent enough, but ‘the place – to put it brutally – was a gambling hell, a drinking-den, a house of assignation, a theatre of obscene burlesque, even – within the limits of its accommodation – a knocking-shop.’ As with Estella in Great Expectations (and Susan in Fingersmith), Fanny’s parentage is not what it seems. But unlike Dickens’s frosty belle, Fanny is not corrupted by her childhood surroundings. She ends up as what Mayhew described as a ‘cohabitant prostitute’ – a kept woman. Half respectable, half whore, she has seen both sides of Victorian society.

Running through Sadleir’s narrative is a lament for the passing of the gaiety (in every sense) of the high Victorian era. He rather regretted the public cleansing brought about by the ‘inspection’ laws of the 1860s, the successive Contagious Disease Acts, the Labouchere amendment providing two years’ hard labour for homosexuality and the killjoy liquor licensing and gaming laws of 1918. Sadleir, who was born in 1888, could hear the echoes of that recently lost saturnalia, whose proximity breathes life into descriptions such as this one of Leicester Square at midnight, in 1870:

The centre of the Square is still an untidy waste, with cheap-jacks booths and heaps of rubbish and gangs of urchins screaming and dodging among the crazy shacks and piles of garbage. In a dark corner behind a closed marionette theatre a drunken clerk is fumbling a harlot. Four or five young men with linked arms are swaying down the middle of the street, shouting the chorus of the gibberish song which had swept the town in 1869:

Jamsetjee ma jagahoy
Jabbery dobi porie
Ikey Pikey Sikey Crikey

Round the square are lighted entrances. Next door to the Alhambra is Brooks’s ‘hall of Justice’, where, in direct succession to Renton Nicholson’s famous entertainment, you hear Judge and Jury and see the Poses Plastiques. The Eldorado is just shutting down; but gin-palaces flare, and here and there a gas-jet shines discreetly on a descending stair to some basement where is a sing-song, and drink and girls are cheap.

However much research Faber and Waters do, however intensely they fantasise on what they have researched, however vividly they write it all up, their belated generation can never really know Victorian England. Early on in The Crimson Petal and the White, Faber describes a whore looking out of her grimy garret window, within earshot of Sadleir’s rowdy songs and ruckus: ‘Outside it is almost completely dark, as the nearest street-lamp is half a dozen houses away. The cobbled paving of Church Lane is no longer white with snow, the sleet has left great gobs and trails of slush, like monstrous spills of semen, glowing in the gas-light. All else is black.’ This broad-brush work, using the favourite colours on Faber’s palette (dark phlegm and pale semen) doesn’t come off. Nor do his finer touches of detail, carefully researched though they may be. Later in the novel, another whore – higher in the ranks of her trade – looks out of a nicer window: ‘A warm reflux of semen trickles down her thighs and into her pantalettes as she stands sniffing; she winces, clutches herself, pushes the windows shut with her free hand. What to do next?’ The nearest the author has come to that interesting item of underwear is the display case in the V&A. And wouldn’t a working girl like Sugar wear the ‘free trade’ variety? Sadleir would have been more knowledgable about Victorian knickers.

In the critical afterword to The Quincunx, his 1989 attempt at a neo-Victorian novel, Charles Palliser says that the main ingredient of the recipe is ‘inversion’. Take Jane Eyre, turn it upside down, shake well and you get Wide Sargasso Sea. The simplest, and bestselling, example of such inversion is George MacDonald Fraser’s Flashman sequence, begun in 1966. Fraser turns Tom Brown’s Schooldays the wrong way up by making a hero out of Harry Flashman – the bully who roasts Hughes’s hero over the dormitory fire. Flashman is subsequently expelled by Dr Arnold after being brought back on a shutter, dead drunk. Perversely (or inversely) he goes on to great glory: he is ennobled, promoted, decorated but, of course, remains the same unregenerate cad, bounder, lecher, knave and coward who bullied and basted the lower forms at Rugby. In Fraser’s version he is lovable with it.

Fraser’s neo-Victorianism draws principally on writers of adventure books such as A.E.W. Mason (The Four Feathers) and Anthony Hope (The Prisoner of Zenda). The Flashman yarns, however, are recurrently subversive. Take the episode in Flashman in the Great Game in which Harry, to escape massacre by Indian mutineers, disguises himself as a sepoy. There is a mêlée, he is knocked unconscious, and wakes to find himself gagged and strapped to the mouth of an artillery piece, along with a row of other ‘black scum’. The gunners are chatting cheerfully:

‘Wot we blowin’ ‘em up for?’ says one pale young trooper. ‘Couldn’t they ‘ang the poor sods – or shoot ‘em. It ‘ud be cheaper.’

‘Poor my arse,’ says the first. ‘You know what they done, these black scum? You shoulda been at Delhi, seen the bloody way they ripped up wimmen and kids – fair sicken yer, wot wi’ tripes an’ innards all over the place. Blowin’ away’s too good for ‘em.’

‘Not as cruel as ‘angin’, neither,’ says a third. ‘They don’t feel nothin’.’ He strolled past my gun, and to my horror he patted me on the head. ‘So cheer up Sambo, you’ll soon be dead.’

But this is an adventure story. With one bound, Harry has to get free. ‘The lieutenant’s eyes were just on mine for an instant before he turned away, and in that instant I raised my brows and lowered them, twice, quickly. It stopped him, and very carefully, as he stared, I closed one eye in an enormous wink.’ The gunner gets the message and Flashy is rescued. The reader breathes a sigh of relief; then will probably feel a little guilty. This particularly unpleasant reprisal was widely reported in the British press in 1857. Fire-eaters like Charles Dickens approved heartily; his friend and disciple Wilkie Collins was appalled. And Flashy? He’s just a soldier who’s seen it all and has no illusions. Thomas Hughes dedicated his novel to ‘the great army of Browns who are scattered all over the whole Empire on which the sun never sets’. Fraser asserts that it was the great and inglorious army of Flashmans who won that Empire – Englishmen who didn’t give a toss about Queen and Country, but just wanted to make it to the end of the campaign and find a cushy berth afterwards.

The Crimson Petal and the White and Fingersmith are, respectively, the tale of an 1860s whore and that of an 1860s street thief (still, at 17, ‘fresh’: a virgin). Both invert familiar Victorian narrative. Faber is the more steeped in the social history of the age, but he tends to show this off too overtly – there’s too much ‘set dressing’, as TV people say. Late in the narrative the male protagonist wants to send a message home. ‘If only,’ he thinks,

he could make contact with his household here and now, to confirm Agnes’s safety. Only last week, he read an article in Hogg’s Review, about a device very soon to be produced in America, a contrivance of magnets and diaphragms, which converts the human voice into electrical vibrations, thus making possible the transmission of speech across vast distances. If only this mechanism were in general use already! Imagine: he could speak a few words into a wire, receive the answer, ‘Yes, she’s here already,’ and be spared this misery of uncertainty.

Fingersmith’s historical veneer is more thinly applied, although Waters has an admirable sense of how radically 19th-century decades differed from each other – something routinely blurred by less scrupulous romancers. Tipping the Velvet is Fin de Siècle, and her gloomily Foucauldian second effort, Affinity, was set in the mid-1870s. In addition to identifying the precise and peculiar flavour of the period, Waters contrives to choose exactly the right Victorian styles. Fingersmith draws on 1860s sensationalism. Affinity has close affinities with late, sombre Dickens (Little Dorrit has been listed by Waters as one of her ten favourite novels). It is hard to see where Tipping the Velvet is coming from; perhaps George Moore’s A Mummer’s Wife – which caused a furore and was banned by the circulating libraries when it came out in 1885.

Fingersmith opens in Mrs Sucksby’s thieves’ kitchen and baby farm (the two were traditionally associated) in the Borough, where the heroine (born in 1844 and now 17) has been brought up. The inmates are described, among them John Vroom, ‘a thin, dark, knifish boy about fourteen’ whose doxy is (implausibly) ‘stitching dog-skins onto stolen dogs, to make them seem handsomer breeds than what they really were’, as Vroom himself does ‘a deal with a dog-thief. This man had a couple of bitches: when the bitches came on heat he would walk the streets with them, tempting dogs away from their owners, then charging a ten pounds’ ransom before he’d give them back. That works with sporting dogs, and dogs with sentimental mistresses.’

There is a section on dog-stealers and their tricks in Mayhew, where we read that ‘another method of decoying dogs is by having a bitch in heat. When any valuable dog follows it is picked up and taken home, then they wait for the reward offered by the owner to return it, generally from £1 to £5. The loss of the dog may be advertised in the Times, or other newspapers.’ Waters does not cite Mayhew among her sources, but it is clear that, as her heroine would, she has dipped into his pockets and lifted what she needs.

In her opening chapter, Waters makes knowing reference to Oliver Twist and to Charlie Wag (according to Mayhew the penny serial most responsible for the corruption of London youth), but the Victorian novel that Waters principally sets out to invert, pervert and subvert is The Woman in White. The events of Fingersmith recognisably follow Wilkie Collins’s narrative, but they are overhung with seditious hypotheses. What if Walter Hartright, the drawing master sent to tutor Laura Fairlie at Limmeridge House, were a rogue and pervert? What if Laura were herself criminally inclined – and willing to join in a roguish plot with Walter? What if Mr Fairlie were not collecting fine pictures but pornography? What if Laura had a lesbian relationship with Marian Halcombe (something hinted at, but not developed, by Collins)? What is admirable in Fingersmith is the expert but relatively straightforward way that Waters, while pursuing these what ifs, masters Collins’s sensationalist devices. Make ‘em laugh, make ‘em cry, make ‘em wait, he instructed. Waters does all this and, most difficult of all, makes us gasp with surprise as well.

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