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Gaslight and Newgate Knockers

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Literary associations with drugs abound: Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Thomas De Quincey (opium); Jean-Paul Sartre and W. H. Auden (Benzedrine); Charles Baudelaire and William Butler Yeats (hashish); William Burroughs (the lot). Then there are the drunks, a list of whose names would take up the rest of this page.

What was the effect of these stimulants? Robert Louis Stevenson reputedly wrote The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde during a six-day cocaine binge. A good thing. The alcoholic F. Scott Fitzgerald admitted that organizing and revising a long book ‘do not go well with liquor’. A bad thing. But, for better or worse, these authors at least knew what to expect when they swallowed, sniffed, smoked or shot up their drug of choice.

Gravely ill, Michael Cox was taken unawares.

For thirty years Cox, a senior commissioning editor at the Oxford University Press, was obsessed with writing a pastiche Victorian sensation novel but he failed to progress further than a few discarded drafts. Then, in 2004, aged 56, he started to lose his sight as a result of a rare cancer. To reduce pressure on his optic nerve, he was given the steroid dexamethasone. Astonishingly, this fired him to start afresh his oft-abandoned novel with such intense mental and physical energy that he wrote the first 30,000 words in eight weeks.

Over the next seventeen months, Cox produced his atmospheric The Meaning of Night: A Confession (2006). He said: ‘I was buzzing with ideas, hyperactive and unable to sleep. Subconsciously, I felt I may go blind and that if I don’t do this now, I’ll never do it.’ On completion, the 600-page book was auctioned in a publishing bidding war for £430,000. But Cox was not finished. With his sight and health still deteriorating, he wrote a sequel, the equally lengthy The Glass of Time: A Novel, published

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Literary associations with drugs abound: Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Thomas De Quincey (opium); Jean-Paul Sartre and W. H. Auden (Benzedrine); Charles Baudelaire and William Butler Yeats (hashish); William Burroughs (the lot). Then there are the drunks, a list of whose names would take up the rest of this page.

What was the effect of these stimulants? Robert Louis Stevenson reputedly wrote The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde during a six-day cocaine binge. A good thing. The alcoholic F. Scott Fitzgerald admitted that organizing and revising a long book ‘do not go well with liquor’. A bad thing. But, for better or worse, these authors at least knew what to expect when they swallowed, sniffed, smoked or shot up their drug of choice. Gravely ill, Michael Cox was taken unawares. For thirty years Cox, a senior commissioning editor at the Oxford University Press, was obsessed with writing a pastiche Victorian sensation novel but he failed to progress further than a few discarded drafts. Then, in 2004, aged 56, he started to lose his sight as a result of a rare cancer. To reduce pressure on his optic nerve, he was given the steroid dexamethasone. Astonishingly, this fired him to start afresh his oft-abandoned novel with such intense mental and physical energy that he wrote the first 30,000 words in eight weeks. Over the next seventeen months, Cox produced his atmospheric The Meaning of Night: A Confession (2006). He said: ‘I was buzzing with ideas, hyperactive and unable to sleep. Subconsciously, I felt I may go blind and that if I don’t do this now, I’ll never do it.’ On completion, the 600-page book was auctioned in a publishing bidding war for £430,000. But Cox was not finished. With his sight and health still deteriorating, he wrote a sequel, the equally lengthy The Glass of Time: A Novel, published in 2008. He died a year later. I knew nothing of this when I found a copy of The Meaning in a charity shop. However, favourable comparisons with Wilkie Collins suggested an enjoyable immersion in melodramatic waters. Any further doubts about the purchase (how many doubts can you have for £2?) were dispelled by the arresting opening sentence: ‘After killing the red-haired man, I took myself off to Quinn’s for an oyster supper.’ In an Editor’s Preface, J. J. Antrobus, ‘Professor of Post Authentic Victorian Fiction at Cambridge University’, tells us that The Meaning is the unreliable memoir of Edward Glyver, transcribed from a recently discovered manuscript. Each of the manuscript’s forty-seven sections is headed by a Latin title: hinc illae lacrimae (hence these tears), alea iacta est (the die is cast), resurgam (I shall rise again) and so on. Footnotes throughout allude to Victorian personalities, London geography, the meaning of now forgotten words, family lineages and obscure books, both real and fictional. Cox, it is clear, knows the times of which he writes, as is to be expected of the biographer of M. R. James and co-editor of The Oxford Book of Victorian Ghost Stories. The manuscript describes Glyver’s obsessive attempt to reclaim the destiny of which he has been cheated. Our hero is an equivocal man to lead us on such a quest. A bibliophile and scholar, he is sentimental and loyal to those he loves. Yet he is also an opium addict (‘Confession’ in the subtitle mirrors De Quincey’s Confessions of an English Opium-Eater), a client of prostitutes, an unprincipled legal agent and a predator who, plotting murder, butchers a stranger before setting out on his quest to prove he is capable of the act. Glyver’s consuming desire for vengeance has driven him insane. The deciphering of his mother’s diaries and notebooks after her death leads Glyver to the honest lawyer Tredgold and the realization that he has been betrayed and so deprived of a prize beyond measure. Piece by piece the complex jigsaw of deception is assembled, and past mysteries – the fleeting touch of an unseen stranger’s hand, a rosewood box left for the child Glyver by a woman whose name he never knew, the significance of the words sursum corda (lift up your hearts), from the Latin Eucharist, contained in a letter – are resolved. You can almost sense Cox’s delight at being released from three decades of creative frustration as he draws on his encyclopaedic knowledge of the Victorian era to portray 1850s London in all its hypocrisy, violence and gaudy vulgarity. The cobbled, gaslit streets; the inspissated fog that turns passers-by into ‘shuffling phantoms’; the reeking rookeries; the scented courtesans in their brocaded ‘academies of love’; the fraudsters, toolers (pickpockets) and rampsmen (muggers); a world in which rogues sport Newgate knockers (heavily greased side whiskers swept back to the ears) and carry Dickensian names such as Josiah Pluckrose and Fordyce Jukes. And ever in the background is the shape-shifting figure of Phoebus Rainsford Daunt, who earned Glyver’s hatred as a youth and comes to dominate his mind. Here is our dubious protagonist – both victim and villain – listless in an opium den. Yielding to the fumes, he reveals his Janus nature, hovering between light and darkness:
The boundaries of this world are ever shifting – from day to night, joy to sorrow, and from life itself to death . . . I have been given my own ever-changing margins, across which I move, continually and hungrily, like a migrating animal. Now civilized, now untamed; now responsive to decency and human concern, now viciously attuned to the darkest of desires . . . if these acts disgust you, then it must be so.
Reflecting this schizophrenia, Glyver’s trail leads him from the stews of London to the faery splendour of Evenwood Park in Northamptonshire, seat of the forbidding Julius Verney Duport, 25th Baron Tansor, ‘a man in whom disapproval and suspicion of his fellow human beings was instinctive and irreversible’. Inevitably, beneath Evenwood’s six cupola-topped towers sinister currents flow. Lord Tansor’s young wife Laura has died, driven mad by her guilt at a terrible secret act. Tansor has remarried but is tormented by lack of a male heir. In this brooding atmosphere, Glyver fatally falls in love with the enigmatic Emily Carteret and reacquaints himself with the egregious Daunt, by now a fêted (in Glyver’s opinion, execrable) poet who has insinuated himself into Lord Tansor’s favour. A second betrayal, even more shocking than the first, awaits the reader before a denouement in the midst of a Park Lane gathering of Victorian high society. Erudite, excursive and written in elaborate prose that is a pitch perfect reflection of the Victorian age, this tapestry of murder, love, vengeance, providence and perfidy is in the grand tradition of those luxuriously lengthy novels in which our forebears lost themselves when leisure time was spent reading instead of watching box sets. Characters are properly fleshed out with their own fateful back stories, interwoven relationships are unstitched, and there is the occasional happy coincidence to push the plot along. But perhaps the most important character is the Victorian world itself, recreated by an author whose love and knowledge of the time shine through. And if you think the ending is a trifle abrupt, almost as if the author has unfinished business . . . The Glass picks up the story twenty years later in 1876 with the arrival at Evenwood of 19-year-old orphan Esperanza Gorst. Esperanza has been raised in France by her guardian, Madame L’Orme, who has contrived for her to be hired as personal maid to the widowed Lady Tansor. She is told by Madame only that she must gain Lady Tansor’s complete trust so she can fulfil a ‘Great Task’. The nature of the Task is initially withheld, for such knowledge might influence her natural, generous character and so lay her open to suspicion. Once established in Lady Tansor’s affections, she will be given more information and advice by Madame in intermittent Letters of Instruction. Like any proper heroine of a Victorian potboiler, Esperanza is soon busily making her own investigations, aided by memoirs and newspaper cuttings sent by Madame. Through her diary, we follow her as she slips through Evenwood’s myriad rooms, peering behind pictures, opening drawers and eavesdropping on conversations from a conveniently discovered hideaway. What secret does the housekeeper Mrs Battersby – a splendid Mrs Danvers figure – hide behind her unsettling reticence? We fear for Esperanza as, on a fleeting trip to London, she follows Lady Tansor’s lawyer, Augustus Vyse, to a stinking Billingsgate pub where he passes money to a young man with murder in his eyes. Whose hand turns the outside key to release Esperanza from the vaulted mausoleum in which she is later locked? Who is the one-armed man with a chimney-pot hat who regards Evenwood from a distance with such intensity yet clearly wishes not to be seen? At the heart of these mysteries lies the formidable Lady Tansor, possessor of knowledge so dark that even her own father is killed to preserve its secrecy. Mighty in rank and authority, unflinching and harsh, she can switch in a moment from icy fury to pathetic reliance on Esperanza who, from emotional need, she elevates to the position of her companion. Esperanza must crush any sympathy she feels for this tormented creature, for Madame has warned her: ‘She can never be your friend . . . her interests and yours are, & will always be, utterly opposed. She is – and always will be – your enemy. Let this be your one guiding principle in everything you do.’ With echoes of Bleak House in its Byzantine plot involving inheritance, questions of identity and secrets long held by a titled woman, The Glass can be read as a stand-alone mystery, though those who approach it as a sequel will find it equally enjoyable. Readers will soon guess Esperanza’s identity and the outline of the ‘prize that awaits’. But they will have to wait 333 pages for the Great Task to be laid bare by Madame. And, of course, by that time undreamed-of circumstances imperil its outcome – and there are still another 280 pages to go. In mad Glyver, we have the dark; in Esperanza, the light piercing a shadowy past which, like a contagion, infects the present. She is young, innocent and curious; artful enough to deceive her elders, brave enough to quell her fears, yet frail enough to doubt her strength and to lose her heart to love. Cox wants us to know the inspiration for such a heroine, as if we need to be told. At the end of another day’s labours, Esperanza writes: ‘After dressing my Lady for dinner, I returned at last to my room, wrote a long account of the day in my Book, and read a little from Mr Wilkie Collins . . .’ Another Victorian novelist, Charles Reade, author of The Cloister and the Hearth, advised ‘Make ’em laugh; make ’em cry; make ’em wait.’ In that, these two books – really, a single 1,100-page epic – deliciously succeed.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 75 © Patrick Welland 2022


About the contributor

Patrick Welland left Fleet Street twelve years ago to concentrate on doing as little as possible apart from reading and occasional writing.

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