Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Derby Day

Ahhhh… Victorian novels. What don’t I love about them? Certainly not their size. Those Victorians wrote some chubby books God bless them. The time period, the plots, I love it all. Every once in a while you find a contemporary writer who can produce a Victorian novel: The Quincunx by Charles Palliser, Fingersmith by Sarah Waters and The Crimson Petal and the White by Michel Faber come to mind. Now add to that list
Derby Day by D.J. Taylor.

The heroes of Derby Day are author D.J. Taylor for writing this novel and the novel’s object of desire, a racehorse named Tiberius. This horse will run in the coming Epsom Derby and all storylines race to that event. The current owner of Tiberius, Mr. Davenant is in financial trouble. A Mr. Happerton would love to take advantage of that situation and get a hold of Tiberius for himself. Happerton marries the wealthy and desirable Rebecca to gain the capitol he needs to further his villainous plans. Rebecca is smarter and more proactive about her life than her husband suspects and that will cost him. Circling these three are the prerequisite 287 addition characters all with tantalizing agendas of their own.  

The amount of research involved in Derby Day shows on every page. Each character behaves if not with the highest hoped for moral correctness of the period then at least in keeping with the period. The food, the fabrics, the attitudes, all the incidentals of life in Victorian England are displayed with an everyday casualness that belies Derby Day having been written in the twenty-first century. The employment by the author of a slightly bemused, above-it-all narrator with knowledge of all builds an intimacy between the reader and the page that helps maintain that connection with the Victorian era.

Taylor’s starting point for Derby Day was W.P. Frith’s wonderful, panoramic painting The Derby Day. This painting was originally shown at the Royal Academy in 1858. You can see the allure for Taylor. There is so much going on in the painting. Every inch of the crowd tells a story and highlights a class situation.

Amazingly every hope, every dastardly deed, every desperate prayer, the entire sprawl of the novel does come together at the Derby.  Derby Day could have been 500 pages of scattershot anecdotes and description but instead the brilliance of D.J. Taylor has made this novel a masterpiece of showmanship and scholarship that completely entertains.


P.S.  That cover? What? It makes it seem as though Derby Day is a Dick Francis mystery.  I cannot say that I think the U.K. cover is any more appropriate.

If the novel is based on The Derby Day by Frith then why not use that painting in some way for the cover? Why not use the 1,000 other images or type that would be more appealing for the cover?

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