A Victorian Novel for the Modern Reader
In the fifth in our series of features on the novels shortlisted for the Walter Scott Prize, we examine how Anthony Quinn creates a Victorian novel for modern times.
Not only is Anthony Quinn’s The Streets set in Victorian London, but it is also a Victorian novel with strong Dickensian overtones. The friction between the rich, unscrupulous landowning class and the downtrodden, vulnerable underclasses grips the novel throughout, with strongly apparent sympathies:
“Raising my voice to a Marchmontian resonance I said, ‘Oh, we have just been consigning the poor to oblivion. Whereas we once imagined that their plight was due to a lack of work, or low pay, or illness, or other hard circumstance, it is now agreed that they are a dangerous class of criminal, and should be incarcerated in a workhouse. Very convenient, I should say.’”
The novel is not a depressing one, however, despite the bittersweet ending and lack of real resolution to the exploitation that pervades the novel. As is often the case with novels written in the first person, The Streets is relatively light on dialogue, relying instead on the opinions and descriptions of the protagonist, David Wildeblood. Early character descriptions put us firmly in Dickensian territory; for example, Rennert, chief secretary to Wildeblood’s employer is described as:
“a vanishingly slender man whose spindly legs and beaky nose put me in mind of a heron.”
In contrast, the ‘guvnor’, Marchmont, is:
“an odd-looking fellow, his stubby frame surmounted by a bald head as round and glazed as a toffee apple. Wisps of reddish-brown hair straggled over his ears. His fleshy nose and cheeks glowed pink from the sherry, and more than one chin spilled over his stand-up collar”.
Initially therefore, the reader is perhaps a little concerned that s/he will be overwhelmed with description. This is not the case, but these early character descriptions are helpful in placing the style of writing in a Victorian context and emphasising the detail of Wildeblood’s observation.
The lucidity of observation and precise description is particularly noteworthy in the novel. Like Dickens although less acerbic, Quinn (through Wildeblood) has wit and pace in his language that is essential to carry the reader through the novel’s dark themes. Wildeblood describes his writing as:
“sloping and rather blotchy script that made every vowel look identical. (I was at that time inclined to believe that a gentleman’s handwriting should not be altogether legible.)”
And on questioning the rather suspicious patrons of the inn on the theft of his coat, he comments,
“I might as well have not been there, like my coat, which actually wasn’t.”
The most noteworthy feature of the way in which The Streets is written, however, is the use of backslang used by the costers and residents of the East London streets, in which Wildeblood becomes proficient at least to a degree, and which represents his growing inclination towards the groups of people that he was meant to be researching. This again is perhaps a source of worry to the reader: will I be swamped in language that is unfamiliar and impossible to decipher? Once again, the answer is ‘no’. Backslang is an essential element of the novel, but as a result of being used sparingly and with repeated use of the same words, it becomes familiar and creates a relationship with the characters. This is something of which Wildeblood himself is very conscious,
“I believe I can identify the moment I became a natural speaker of back slang….. One afternoon, arriving at his [Jo’s] stall later than usual, I said almost unknowingly, ‘A doogheno or a dabheno?’. Jo had often chaffed me for my awkward mimicking of coster language, didn’t even look up….’Dab’ he said, with a little shake of his head. He hadn’t even noticed! I took great heart from this.”
‘Doogheno’ (good one) and ‘dabheno’ (bad one) are used initially to describe the day’s market, but becomes a motif throughout the novel. Wildeblood’s background is such that unlike many characters, he can make a choice about the class of people with whom he associates. His language never becomes the cockneyed vernacular of Joe and Roma,
“Smashin’ turn that, tonight, Ro” he said. “This is David, feller I was tellin’ you about”…..”Most h’enamoured of yer singin’, ‘n’ all”
He increasingly affiliates himself with their life and language, however. The police are always ‘slops’ later in the novel, and he gradually incorporates local words into his speech,
“Jo reckons they’re [his clothes] a bit tofficky”, I confessed”
‘The Streets’ is a Victorian novel that offers the wit, observation and moral outrage of Dickens, but while the prose has a similar feel, the prose is lighter, more accessible and precise in its use of dialect to enhance the feel and characterisation of the novel.
Posted by Helen Boyd