Fiction - 'Pon my word!

Kept: a Victorian mystery

D J Taylor <em>Chatto & Windus, 431pp, £16.99</em>

ISBN 0701178957

The subtitle of D J Taylor's new novel - "a Victorian mystery" - is more revealing than it appears. It describes not just the novel's setting and genre, which you'd expect, but its structure and - 'pon my word! - its prose, too. Thus we have an abundance of seemingly discrete narratives that finally cohere when the omniscient author draws the net tight. And we have lengthy sentences, wry, collusive asides, and a marked sensitivity towards readers of the fair sex, who are generously prevented from swooning by the use of bowdlerising gaps in such vile expletives as "D-n it!"

Taking in London, East Anglia, the Scottish Highlands and Canada, the novel's vinous plot grows from the death of William Henry Ireland, a landowner, in Suffolk in 1863. Ireland, who is found with his head smashed in, apparently following a fall from his horse, leaves behind a mentally ill widow, Isabel, whose sudden disappearance after her husband's death baffles many. Around this we have Dixey, a naturalist and an executor of Ireland's will, who may have his new ward, Isabel, locked away in his attic; Pardew, a conman who makes a living from fraudulent cheques and who is planning a train robbery; Crabbe, an elderly lawyer who appears somehow to be unwillingly complicit in Pardew's schemes; and Captain McTurk of the police force, who senses that Ireland's death was not an accident.

To make an involved plot positively Byzantine, Taylor deploys an additional cast of characters who add de-tail to the strands above. For example, Dixey's do-mestic situation is not described di-rectly by the narrator but is filtered through the viewpoint and story of Esther, his new maid; and some of what we find out about Pardew comes through the story of William Latch, Dixey's one-time footman. To complicate matters further, Esther and William, who exist chiefly to bolster the main story of Isabel's disappearance, fall in love, and yet another narrative strand unfolds.

Taylor maintains a decent grip on all this and cleverly withholds much from us, notably whether Isabel truly is mad or is simply being driven mad by an oppressive male coterie. Even more impressive, however, is Taylor's grasp of Victorian idiom. While his antiquated prose style may cause some to denounce this novel as pastiche, a more reasonable response would be to ask why he chose to write this way. Was it partly in frustration at writers of modern literary fiction, who frequently dispense with action and character in order to exhibit their own technique and wisdom? Could Taylor's unwillingness to trade with any aspect of the 21st century be a criticism of modern Britain itself?

Not everything works. With its madwomen, crooks and queasy clerks, Kept occasionally seems like a "best of Victorian literature". Some episodes are overlong; others are too self-contained, such as the sub-plot set in Canada, which is beautifully written but reads like a Jack London short story that was shoehorned in to add colour. And Taylor might have brought things together sooner, which would have enabled him to avoid the late appearance of a couple of staggering coincidences.

But Kept is an ambitious project, and a few failings were inevitable. If it does not quite reach the heights of the works to which it pays homage, it is nevertheless a gripping tale, crafted with passion and intelligence, and an honourable addendum to the golden age of the English novel.