Review

Kept: A Victorian Mystery

by D. J. Taylor

After I finished graduate school, I took a lengthy vacation
from the works of Charles Dickens, until last year's "Masterpiece
Theatre" production of BLEAK HOUSE inspired me to revisit that
master of the 19th-century novel. When I picked up D. J. Taylor's
new historical mystery KEPT, I was immediately reminded of
Dickens's work, with its rich atmosphere, vividly drawn characters
and glimpses into the lives of Victorian England's high and mighty
and low and seedy alike.

Likewise, Taylor's book turns as if on a dime in virtually every
chapter, focusing on kitchen maids and heiresses, police
investigators and lawyers, even small-time criminals and various
other unsavory sorts. The main plot of this richly multi-plotted
novel centers on Isabel Ireland, a young widow whose husband Henry
died suddenly following a horseriding accident (or perhaps the
mysterious circumstances are slightly more sinister…).
Rumored to be mad, hidden away in sealed-off rooms of the ominous,
eccentric collector Mr. Dixey, Isabel is unreachable by virtually
everyone, even her most determined relatives. But, as readers glean
from the accounts of dozens of interrelated characters, Isabel ---
and her late husband --- are far from forgotten.

The reader's efforts in piecing together the evidence of a variety
of crimes --- from murder to train robbery (modeled on the Great
Train Robbery of 1855) --- are paralleled by those of police
captain McTurk, a new breed of law enforcement officer described as
both "thorough" and "single-minded." And he'd have to be, too, to
wade through the letters, memos, diary entries and narratives that
combine to form the text. That's not to say that readers have to
pursue the mystery doggedly themselves; in fact, the best way to
read KEPT is to just get lost in its world, to allow oneself to
become absorbed in these Victorian intrigues and romances,
betrayals and secrets --- the mystery will take care of
itself.

Like many other modern novels based on Victorian characters and
themes, KEPT offers today's readers subtle commentaries on
Victorian mores even as it delves deeply into its environment.
Numerous miscommunications, failed attempts to locate relations
(particularly Dixey and Isabel) and unanswered letters underscore
the contrast between our own ultra-connected lifestyle and that of
the Victorians. Accounts of Isabel's madness, delivered primarily
by her husband, doctor and (male) guardian (Isabel herself, when
she finally gets to narrate, is genuinely confused about her own
sanity), will resonate with anyone who has read THE MADWOMAN IN THE
ATTIC or similar feminist critiques.

Even the snide commentaries of the egg poachers who stock Dixey's
taxidermy collections offer understated remarks on Victorian
practices: "'What we're after, there's few enough of them to be had
now….But think of it! These might be the last of them in all
England. That's worth a ten pound note if ever a thing was.'"

Undeniably viewed through a modern lens, KEPT nevertheless manages
to preserve the authentic flavor of the best Victorian
novels.

It's probably no wonder that D. J. Taylor has been able to
construct such a well-developed, convincing Victorian world. In
addition to novels, his previous works include biographies of
George Orwell and William Makepeace Thackeray, as well as critical
studies of more recent English literature. The obviously well-read
author's acknowledgments mention "the direct influence of Charles
Dickens, George Eliot, Elizabeth Gaskell, George Gissing, Jack
London, Mary Mann, Henry Mayhew, George Moore, Alfred Lord
Tennyson, Anne Thackeray Ritchie, W. M. Thackeray and Anthony
Trollope." Of course, readers of these influential authors will be
the biggest fans of KEPT, and will delight in finding the allusions
--- some obvious, some hardly so --- that litter Taylor's
prose.

Well-informed by his literary precedents and creative enough to
make this novel uniquely his own, Taylor has created a dense,
ambitious Victorian novel that is sure to satisfy fans of those
19th-century masters.

Reviewed by Norah Piehl on January 22, 2011

Kept: A Victorian Mystery
by D. J. Taylor

  • Publication Date: May 1, 2007
  • Genres: Fiction, Mystery
  • Hardcover: 480 pages
  • Publisher: HarperCollins
  • ISBN-10: 0061146080
  • ISBN-13: 9780061146084