Sunday, 4 October 2015

What happened to penny book reviews? Some few years ago, I remember people reviewing forgotten classics that they'd bought for 1p on Amazon - but I can't find them now and I suppose it must have fizzled out.  I think this must have been one of them because I was burning to read it. It's still 1p on Amazon but I came across my copy - sadly, without the John Piper book jacket - in a charity shop in Broadstairs. And like so many books that I must, must, must have ... it has been gathering dust on a pile for years!
But eventually its time came and I thought that autumn evenings demanded a wallow in the underbelly of Victorian England. (It was actually published in 1947.) Michael Sadleir was the author of the better-known Fanny by Gaslight, which I vaguely remember as a TV series that I wouldn't have bothered watching back in the Eighties. (I vaguely remember that I was never in on a Saturday night!)

Fanny by Gaslight was concerned with the amusements (predominantly vicious) of rich people in London during the seventies of the last century. Forlorn Sunset is a story of the same period, but presents the evil folk who pandered to those amusements, and the miseries (and therefrom arising vices) of their poor and helpless victims. Inevitably it lacks the glamour of its predecessor, and the characters encountered are for the most part disreputable.

Well, there's a touch of George Gissing and Grub Street about it (but Gissing is miles better). This is a book about London, and thank heavens there's a couple of maps because without them I'd have got terribly confused. (It starts in the vicious streets in the vicinity of Waterloo Station, then shifts to Marylebone.)
At the centre of the novel is a child called Lottie Heape who escapes from an establishment,  'this vile Dothegirls Hall, ' for grooming young girls for a life of prostitution; she does very well for herself in St John's Wood as a kept mistress until her protector is murdered and she falls in love with a brute. Apart from that, all human life is there - vicars and pimps, tarts with a heart, and characters who could have walked straight out of Dickens. I was interested to discover that the Moonlight Mission really existed.
When it works, this is a fascinating story of organised crime and vice on streets I often walk today ... but what a tangled web to keep up with! I got horribly confused by some of the business scams and share-dealings. And there are longueurs when Sadleir drones on and you're tempted to skip chunks. A good penny's worth? Certainly, but I doubt I'll be reading him again.

However, this postscript interested me:

London's street-plan was in most districts haphazard, complex and unsuited to through traffic. One consequence of this .... was that the areas of popular resort - whether fashionable, social, official, professional, commercial, pleasure-seeking or dissolute - were few and circumscribed, so that chance encounters between folk of a similar sort were much more frequent than is the case nowadays.

So perhaps all those unlikely coincidences in Dickens' novels aren't so unlikely after all?

No comments: