Review: Tom All Alone’s, Lynn Shepherd

Spin offs.  I have mused on this subject before when I reviewed Death comes to Pemberley – the results can be mixed.  Tom All Alone’s is justly described as not so much a spin off of Bleak House as it is a dark remake, with a shake of The Woman in White and The French Lieutenant’s Woman for good measure.  I got this back in September but decided not to start it until I had actually and truly finished Bleak House and then I thought I had better get on with it while it was still fresh in my mind.  Compared to the original though, I ended up feeling though that I had gone through it at full pelt – like the equivalent of running down hill very, very fast to reach the finishing line.

Tom All Alone’s was the original name that Dickens had planned for Bleak House, it was the name of the slum around where Jo the crossing sweeper plied his trade.  Like the original, this story is set in London, 1850 – mysterious and rather unpleasant letters have been arriving at the homes of various noble peers of the realm and They Don’t Like It.  So they call on their trusty lawyer … drum roll … Mr Tulkinghorn.  Yikes.  He is rather the Darth Vader of Victorian literature so I did genuinely think it was interesting to put him in a new story, particularly since Shepherd’s mission is to display the true under-belly of Victorian London in a way in which Dickens would never have been able to.  Dickens was the Father of the Nation – he frequently wrote with a political axe to grind, but he still wrote for polite society.  The story that emerges is incredibly dark – Bleak House was tragic but Tom All Alone’s was plain disturbing.

Spin offs (let’s just call it that for now) need to be able to stand on their own without knowledge of their previous source material – eg. you can enjoy watching Frasier without having seen a single episode of Cheers, although I do think that the character of Lilith is fabulous.  Tom All Alone’s is set firmly in the crime fiction genre, just like Death comes to Pemberley but I have already stated that that book is staggeringly poorly plotted – it just does not work as a mystery.  To a certain extent I think that Tom All Alone’s was slightly top-heavy as a mysteries go, so that the denouement felt rushed but on the whole, it does work as an independent novel.  Charles Maddox is fairly well-drawn character who works as an original creation; a Victorian private investigator, he has been drummed out of the force by Inspector Bucket.  Like any good detective, he has a troubled home life and an axe to grind and even when he is told not to interfere, Charles Don’t Care, No, No, He Don’t Care.  When Bucket tries to arrest him, Charles snarls “You’ll have to try a lot harder to pin this one on me”.  So yes, a solid third to a half of this dialogue is pure Cheese On Toast.  But then, Dickens was also a master of the Over The Top.

Charles Maddox is called to a scene where a raft of dead babies have been buried, quite a vivid opening statement: This is a Book Where Babies Die.  Watch Out.  To be fair, it’s not like stuff like this never happened.  There are hints of stuff like this in Bleak House which has Esther Summerson as its protagonist, a woman who is illegitimate.  Mr Snagsby is regularly suspected of being the father of Jo the crossing-sweeper, and that poor unloved boy stumbles from place to place, never knowing anything or what he can do to help himself.  But in this book, the true horror of poverty and the ghastly vulnerability of these poor people is really made clear.  A few years ago, I would have thought that this was exaggerated or unrealistic but in my current job, I know that it is not.  I am teaching in one of the hotspots for child abuse and domestic violence and I have had to wise up.

This year once I was ranting about how rude a pupil had been to me and as I listed several things about her, I realised that she was an abuse victim.  She had other problems that were nothing to do with me.  Last week, I had to send a child home to his mother because that was where he legally belongs, but I knew full well that he would be beaten.  It wasn’t until the next day when he came back in and told us what had happened that we could actually ring Social Services.  Even now, we have no accurate record of where he is living.  I can do nothing more than pray for him and try to take care of him as best I can during the hours of the day where he is under my care.  One little boy was due to be sent home with suspected chicken pox and he burst into tears because he would miss his school dinner, his only square meal of the day.  Dickensian waifs still walk among us but they don’t walk up and ask tremulously for ‘More’, they tend to be the most awkward and rude pupils in the class, they have fears and frustrations that I hope that I will never truly understand.

Still, this is not a story about the perils of Victorian peasantry.  It is the Crimes of Great Men that Shepherd is concerned about.  After a bit of Maddox bashing about and investigating the nasty letters, enter Hester, who lives at Solitary House.  Hester.  Solitary House.  Geddit?  We also have Clara Adams instead of Ada Clare and Caroline instead of Caddy and Mr Jarvis instead of Mr Jarndyce.  There are clear signs that Solitary House is not the same happy place that Bleak House was.  Actually, Solitary House was the name of the American release of the novel.  Hester’s portions of the narrative are in the first person and basically consist of the most irritating parts of Esther’s narrative from Bleak House so that I did have a real sense of “Oh not her again!” but still, there is a reason for everything.

Let’s not be overly mean to Esther!

The funny thing is that blogging has changed my experience of reading – I think about things a lot more while I am reading them.  I have also joined GoodReads which gives a lovely opportunity to see other people’s opinions, still I read one person’s review of this book though and I couldn’t help but titter.  Tittering is nearly as bad as sniggering but nowhere near as bad as chuckling.  I despise the word ‘chuckle’ – if I could I would bomb it out of the dictionary – that and ‘meh’ are two words which automatically lower my opinion of someone if I hear them used.  Anyway – I read this review that apparently Hester was so vain and preening that they wished that this portion had been excluded from the novel.  I mean, that’s the point of Esther/Hester.  She’s weird.  Opinion is divided about whether or not it’s a fault of Dickens’ writing or if Esther is genuinely supposed to be pursuing her own agenda.  I think that in Bleak House she’s a lot cleverer than she wants to admit … I also think that her relationship with Ada/Clara is rather odd.  Basically, we know that Esther is not a reliable narrator and here Shepherd explores if rather than being the Angel in the House who is discreet at certain sections of the story, is she in fact insane?  But to be fair, the reviewer who wanted rid of her hadn’t read Bleak House and also in a previous review disliked The Hundred Year Old Man because ‘it was unrealistic’ so I’m guessing that they haven’t really understood irony yet.  So let’s lay off Esther, she had a rough start in life in Bleak House and then here has been sent somewhere truly horrific and there will be no true happy ending.  The Woodcourt of Tom All Alone’s will not be marrying Hester, the best she can hope is to be sheltered by kind people who will keep her safe.

Wandering (or maybe stumbling) on to the set of all this drama are the characters from The Woman in White and I actually went out and bought that after finishing Tom … which does imply that I enjoyed Tom, having read one 900 page novel in preparation and now starting into another 600 page one again to really understand what it was that Lynn Shepherd was trying to put across.  Oh dear.  Ah the strange dark reading corridors that I take myself down in.  And now I’ve discovered the Basildon Free Books Project which gives me stuff to read for free … I have a vision of myself being buried under a mountain of books as an old lady.  Fingers crossed that I will always have people in my life who can dig me out.  Anyway, so having started Woman in White the day after I finished Tom, I could recognise the quotes in there that Shepherd lifted for her book.  Wilkie Collins and Charles Dickens were contemporaries and Dickens used to edit Collins’ books for him so their works are related.

Anyway, Anne Catherick is in the foreground and Laura Fairlie-Glyde flutters about the background, both of them being ‘cruelly used and cruelly wronged’.  There are a litter of women of this category who live in Solitary House but these are no madwomen in the attic – they were not born this way.  Recent scandals such as all that has come out about the Catholic church and the Jimmy Saville scandal last year have made it clear that things like this do happen.  It doesn’t make them any easier to read about though.  And I don’t know … whenever books try to shock me about things that haven’t really happened, I get kind of annoyed thinking about things that have actually happened that nobody batted an eyelid about.  I’m sure there were real cases of rape and incest victims being locked away as insane by their relatives in the Victorian era, it just seemed like this was kind of gratuitous.

It was interesting to match up the Dickens characters with their maladies – Caddy Jellyby is restrained because of her Rage Issues, Richard Carstone has monomania and scribbles obsessively (he may actually have had that one), Clara is vague and simple-minded (again, she might actually have had that one) and then poor, poor Hester.  I felt though that it was odd that Shepherd cast Mr Jarndyce as the villain of this piece and sidestepped Mr Skimpole who is after all one of Dickens’ more memorable villains.

American cover

Shepherd is really trying to be clever in this book, not just with the intertextual references.  She makes some very post-modern references, noting at one point that something is like ‘turning on a switch’ for Charles but then remarking that this references comes ‘about thirty years too early’.  I actually haven’t read The French Lieutenant’s Woman but I had to study part of it when I was revising for A-Level English Literature so I’m familiar with some of the tricks of the narrator that make it famous.  Basically, Shepherd is messing with perspective and the idea of the omniscient narrator, she does a full on rewind at one point and Shepherd’s voice breaks in frequently.  Again, this is clever but tends to irritate me.  I studied The Development of the Novel at university and I could stop and explain the way that this genre gradually evolved – in the 19th century, authors often fussed about how to let the reader in and would keep popping back in to make sure that the reader was following things.  Speaking as the reader, it’s fine, just write the story, I don’t need you here, go back to what you’re doing and I’ll Google it later if I find myself befuddled.

So … I’m glad I read Tom All Alone’s … still, it wasn’t what I expected.  Of all the mysteries of Bleak House, I wouldn’t have expected the story to go off at an angle so much.  Tulkinghorn is an intriguing villain, Lady Dedlock was petrified of him – my own theory was that he loved her, just not in a nice way.  Shepherd also portrays him as a sexual predator so her mind must have gone there too.  I also wondered why Lady Dedlock’s lover never returned to her.  Again, Shepherd reuses the idea with Hester of wanting to die where the person you love is buried so I wondered why she never developed that further.  Shepherd shows her deep love of Victoriana and particularly Victorian London in this novel and it is very impressive, I think that for me a lot of the subject matter was a bit too dark and if this had not been centred around a book that I had already loved, then I would not have been reading it.  I’m a bit of an innocent, pedophilia is not what I want to be reading about.  This is also the second book that I’ve read in two months that concerned Jack the Ripper, which was not planned.  It does make me a little sad that Jack the Ripper is a scar on the face of London – it’s such a wonderful city, one of the greatest in the world.  I’m not saying forget the victims, but can we at least stop glamourising their murderer?

So the story of Tulkinghorn is told here … it didn’t change my view of Bleak House like The Wild Sargasso Sea did for my reading of Jane Eyre but I did think that it was a well written piece of fiction that is an interesting companion to the original.  It also inspired me to read The Woman in White which is actually really good fun … watch this space!

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Tom-All-Alone's by Lynn Shepherd
Published by Corsair on September 1st 2012
Pages: 359
ISBN: 178033169X

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3 thoughts on “Review: Tom All Alone’s, Lynn Shepherd

  1. I really enjoyed this post. I've not read, or watched, Bleak House, or Tom All Alones though I plane to read Bleak House at some point and I'm familiar with the Woman in White. Basically though, I just really enjoyed your thoughts on them all.

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