The author has Charles Dickens among his favorite authors, but Tom Bedlam reminds me more of Henry Fielding, Tobias Smollett, or their American counterparts Kenneth Roberts or Robert Lewis Taylor, among others. In other words, this is a novel which draws in a number of characters around the protagonist, introduces many settings and plotlines, and over the course of the book brings each character and plotline to a finish.
Usually in this type of novel, the central character is a much put-upon innocent. Tom Bedlam starts out that way, but he does learn to temporize and compromise. This work is still old-fashioned in the sense that the subjects’ actions incur logical consequences. Growing up in South London in the 1860s, Tom is not a foundling, but he does have an overly principled mother who went to work in a porcelain factory when she made a bad choice in husbands and was abandoned. It takes Tom a long time to get that much out of her; she has to start sliding off the deep end to open up about it, although it is entertaining when she starts telling people off in place of the usual gentle greeting. Tom plays with and admires the children of the nearby family called Limpkin, but lusts after another porcelain factory maid who throws him over for the factory owner’s son. His mother’s death reveals a legacy for him to go to school and he is set for his own version of the English boys’ boarding school. Here he has to make a most difficult choice and although necessary, it haunts him the rest of his days.
There is much to enjoy in this modern version of the picaresque tale.