Rose Tremain is a prolific and prize-winning author, the recipient of the Whitbread and the Orange Prize for Fiction, shortlisted for the Costa and Booker. She is also an unpredictable one. Her work ranges across time from the Restoration to the present day. Her characters are court musicians, gardeners, translators, immigrants, a child struggling with gender identity. Even when she ventures into that most crowded period for writers of historical fiction, the 19th century, she takes readers to unexpected destinations, to the islands of Borneo or the New Zealand gold fields.
So it is surprising to find that her new novel, Lily, a Tale of Revenge takes us no further afield than Suffolk and centres on the struggles of a Victorian orphan familiar not just to Dickens but to a hundred of his imitators. After spending her early years on Rookery Farm in Suffolk, Lily returns to the London Foundling Hospital. The farm and her bewilderment at being forced to leave it are described in vivid, affecting prose. Readers will feel for Lily, but they may find themselves distracted by recalling that David Copperfield also grows up in Suffolk at a house called Blunderstone Rookery and that Dickens wrote, in Little Dorrit, about Tattycoram, another girl raised in the Foundling Hospital. The echoes continue. Life in the Hospital is bleak and Lily (like Oliver Twist) runs away. She wanders about the countryside, her feet bleeding, as Little Nell does. She commits a murder and, like Dickens’ murderers, is haunted by it. As a young adult she encounters the world of the theatre, just like Nicholas Nickleby. There is a Dickensian detective and Dickensian names aplenty: Belle Prettyman, a wig-maker; a seller of religious relics named Mrs Quayle; even a rag-doll called Tatty. The front cover might belong to one of Dickens’ original serials, being all elaborate curlicues and pen and ink illustrations of a barefoot child, a farm, a birdcage, a noose. All this is derivative, clearly deliberately so.
Lily bears a close resemblance to such sophisticated works of neo-Victorian literary pastiche as Possession or The French Lieutenant’s Woman though it is denser, more fragmentary, odder than either of them. Tremain distils most of Dickens’ oeuvre and half his characters into one novel of fewer than 300 pages, into a heroine who is, as the story shifts, a pretty young woman, a helpless child, and a killer. Lily’s friendship with her fellow orphan Bridget draws on the early part of Jane Eyre; Bridget’s suicide on the deaths of the children in Hardy’s Jude the Obscure. La Traviata, the opera adapted from the younger Dumas’ La Dame aux Camélias is discussed at length: Lily watches a performance. We return to the fictional village of Swaithey, setting for one of Tremain’s earlier novels, Sacred Country. Another, more surprising literary nod, comes in the form of the wolves who appear in the novel’s opening pages, surely a reference to Joan Aiken’s 1962 novel The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, yet another tale of 19th-century orphans.
In addition to the wolves, there are a number of other apparent anachronisms and errors which seem designed to wrongfoot the reader, to undermine the idea that we are dealing with straightforward historical fiction.
Tremain’s foundlings wear no aprons, though it was a prominent part of the Hospital’s uniform. Lily finds temporary refuge at a convent run by the Sisters of Mercy, only it seems to be north of London rather than in Bermondsey, where it was located in reality. She is immediately able to identify an illness as shingles rather than syphilis or erysipelas, which is more than many Victorian doctors could. There is a suggestion that someone has died in a train accident in India at a time when there were almost no railways there; some confusion, or not? The orphans are scrubbed clean with loofahs decades before the word was in use, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. There are several instances of 20th-century slang.
The cumulative effect is disorientating in the extreme but then it has been a disorientating time of late and particularly so for Tremain, who has recently undergone treatment for pancreatic cancer. Her decision to give her heroine a name reminiscent of her own suggests there may even be autobiographical elements at play, that the book should be read alongside her 2018 memoir, Rosie. Whatever Lily is, whether pastiche or admiring imitation, historical fiction or fantasy, fairytale or memoir, it is a fever-dream of a novel, something rich and strange.
Helena Kelly is the author of Jane Austen, the Secret Radical, published by Icon books
This article first appeared in the December 2021 issue of the Catholic Herald. Subscribe today.
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