D.J. Taylor’s Derby Day has to do primarily with racetrack shenanigans in mid-nineteenth century England. Taylor has assembled a raffish and thoroughly entertaining cast of characters, both equine and human. Where the latter are concerned, each has his or her scheming eye on the main chance. (A possible exception is Miss Ellington, a young governess who finds herself unwittingly embroiled in the devious machinations of those far more worldly wise than herself.)
Part of what makes Derby Day so much fun to read is the author’s effortless mastery of the lingo of mid-Victorian England. This goes for race track touts and aristocrats alike. Their world comes vividly and memorably to life: its sights, sounds, and peculiarities. The novel puts one in mind of Charles Dickens; indeed, mention is made of ‘Mr. Dickens’ on several occasions.
Taylor’s writing is spiced with wit and colorful imagery. In one scene, during a light repast, the gentle and rather hapless Mr. Gresham is attempting to discourse on matters of importance with his daughter. For her part, Rebecca Gresham is anything but hapless: “…the daughter crunched up her toast like some white-armed siren feasting on the bones of drowned mariners….”
Taylor possesses a vivid feel for the history of specific locales. Several scenes in the narrative take place in the Lincolnshire countryside; they concern two adjacent estates, Scroop, which belongs to the Davenants, and another belonging to Mr. Glenister, a bachelor:
This is an ancient part of the world. There are people here, in this corner of England, next to whom the Davenants are brazen interlopers, people who have farmed land for six hundred years. ‘Scroop’ itself is Old Norse, but there were settlers here before that. A year since, one of Mr. Glenister’s men found a coin in an upturned furrow, which a Lincoln antiquary dated to the reign of the Emperor Constantine. It sits on the study mantelpiece, along with a tobacco jar sporting the arms of Mr. Glenister’s Cambridge college and the portrait of his mother.
One of Taylor’s sources for his vivid recreation of things past was My Autobiography and Reminiscences by W.P. Frith. William Powell Frith was an artist of the Victorian era. The Derby Day is one his most famous paintings:
David John Taylor is a writer new to me, whose acquaintance I’m happy to have made. He’s not only a novelist, but also a critic and a biographer (of Thackeray and George Orwell). In other words, he’s yet another of those literary prodigies that Britain still regularly produces, for the delight and edification of the rest of us. (Derby Day made the long list for the 2011 Man Booker Prize.)
Lately I have been in need of reading that is somewhat less fraught and more lighthearted than the usual fare. Not altogether frivolous, mind you – the same requirements apply as always: excellent writing, great sense of place, memorable characters, compelling story. By Jove, Derby Day was just the ticket, on all counts!