There are few things I enjoy more than a good 19th-century British novel—the Brontes, Hardy, Collins, Eliot, Gaskell, Austen, and on and on. And so I am always drawn to modern novels written in the style of these great authors. Often, as with The Crimson Petal and the White, these tributes to the great literary past are enjoyable but lack a convincing voice—they’re often too frank, too interested in titillating modern readers to feel like true 19th-century novels.
But then, there are novels like Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, one of my favorite books of the last few years—19th-century faery story that feels true to its period. And now we have The Meaning of Night, Michael Cox’s marvelous recreation of the 19th-century Gothic thriller.
I hesitate to say much about the plot because the joy in this book, as with The Woman in White, is in watching the plot unfold. The story begins with a murder. The killer is our narrator; the victim, a random stranger; and the crime, a dress rehearsal:
Until the very moment in which the blow had been struck, I had not known definitively that I was capable of such a terrible act, and it was absolutely necessary to put the matter beyond all doubt. For the despatching of the red-haired man was in the nature of a trial, or experiment, to prove to myself that I could indeed take another human life, and escape the consequences. When I next raised my hand in anger, it must be with the same swift and sure determination; but this time it would be directed, not at a stranger, but at the man I call my enemy.
The “editor” J.J. Antrobus, Professor of Post-Authentic Victorian Fiction at Cambridge, tells in the preface that this confession, written by a man who uses the name Edward Glyver, was found in a collection of papers bequeathed to the Cambridge library. Antrobus notes that, as a confession, it is “often shocking in its frank, conscienceless brutality and explicit sexuality.”
The true author, Michael Cox, manages the difficult trick of giving the writing an authentic-sounding Victorian voice. Even those “shocking” parts referred to in the preface felt true to the period. Glyver mentions his visits to prostitutes and opium dens matter-of-factly as part of his confession. You don’t have to read between the lines, but you also aren’t smacked in the face with the seediness of it all.
Really, this is the closest thing I’ve ever read to a 19th-century novel written in the modern day. Highly, highly, highly recommended. Cox’s sequel, The Glass of Time, is being published in the U.S. on October 13. I am all a-twitter with excitement that I snagged an advance copy through Library Thing’s Early Reviewer program. You can be sure I’ll be reading and reviewing it very soon.
This book is my second for the RIP Challenge. Although I’ve officially finished Peril the Second, I hope to read The Glass of Time before the challenge is up. (If I do that, I guess I can say I’ve finished Peril the 1.5!)