Ann Featherstone had written non-fiction before turning her pen to the more creative elements, kicking off with Walking in Pimlico in 2009. With an academic background that includes lecturing in Performance History and researching Drama, it comes as no surprise that the setting for her novels covers the music halls, circus rings and freak shows of Victorian London. Very quickly on reading, the feeling of being in ‘safe hands’ arrives when it comes to the detail, and we have a wonderful evocation of time and place concentrating on the less fortunate in society. The prose itself is evocative of the Victorian world, but without pushing the reader into reading as a Victorian would have done; here, we have a style that blends, and which suits the contemporary reader interested in history. In The Newgate Jig, we also have a crime novel with a setting ripe for the imagination.
The novel opens with an emotional and horrific scene: the subject of this particular Newgate jig is about to be hung in front of his ten year old son Barney Kevill. ‘There is nothing more dreadful, surely, than seeing one’s own father hung.’ Barney is convinced of his father, George’s innocence and vows to clear his name. Unfortunately, others are also aware of the truth behind of Barney’s public declarations and feel a need to silence the young boy.
Barney arrives at the disused London Aquarium seeking support and planning revenge for his father’s death. This puts him in the company of a troupe of entertainers or ‘marvels and misfits’ that includes a very diminutive Princess Tiny; the giant Herr Swann; struggling author, but popular playwright Fortinbras Horatio Trimmer; and finally, Bob Chapman and his loyal Sagacious Canines, Brutus and Nero. Chapman is our narrator as Barney’s arrival impacts their lives and Chapman’s in particular.
Initially casting an oppressive shadow over all, but later materialising into the most thug-like of human form, The Nasty Man and his cohorts are never far away.
Where the novel’s travels through Victorian London’s eateries and entertainment palaces offer up some humour – the rehearsal of Miss Jacques’s part in Trimmer’s current play being one example – this is still a story about the underbelly of Victorian life and it is not pleasant at all, but it is true to the period and embedded in realism. And just when you think you have all the characters sussed comes a revelation from our narrator to severely knock your assumptions.
The Newgate Jig takes us on an interesting exploration of Victorian London before hammering in the continuation of an appalling story of inhumanity, perversion and abuse of power, drawing from its underbelly. So real in its story, The Newgate Jig is not one for the faint of heart when it comes to the crime committed, but the tone the author delivers is note perfect and the setting is alive with reality. If you like a dip into the Victorian world you will love this, but do have some tissues to hand.
With thanks to John Murray for the review copy.