The Walworth Beauty.
Bloomsbury. 2017. 389 pp.
ISBN 978 1 4088 8340 2.
Joseph, London 1851: "He abandoned his report for Mayhew, turned the page. He wanted to write something for this new projecthe'd dreamed up. Start by describing Mrs Dulcimer. His black muse. His Walworth Beauty. Follow with an account of the morning's patrol, his encounters with the prostitutes who'd accosted him."
Joseph Benson, a one-time Bow Street police clerk, has been taken on by Mayhew to investigate the living conditions of the criminal poor—the thieves, beggars, and prostitutes—in the area south of the Thames in London. In fact, the Victorian social investigator Henry Mayhew (1812-1887) really did publish a book about the living conditions of the London poor in 1851, but Joseph is a purely fictional figure, and his methods of research and reporting are certainly not the dry, factual sort that appear in Mayhew's book.
Joseph, with his prurient imagination, gets involved with his subject, and his first meeting with Mrs. Dulcimer, who runs a house for fallen women, is full of misunderstandings on his and her side, and on the part of the reader. Only later in the book does this become clear, but until that time Joseph appears to be a rather unpleasant character full of the usual Victorian male-chauvinistic attitudes towards women.
He still mourns the death of his beloved first wife and loves his family, especially their daughter, Millie, and when he eventually quarrels with his second wife, Clara, her revelations about his earlier marriage are devastating.
Mrs. Dulcimer remains an enigma. An attractive, independent black woman who runs her own business and is very much in charge of her own life and that of the girls she supports—she, too, is not all she originally seems to be.
The story of Joseph's involvement with Mrs Dulcimer unfolds in parallel with that of Madeleine, a thoroughly modern, 21st century woman. Maldelein's teaching position has just been axed, and she has no job and very little money, so she decides to leave her smart, London city life and move to a very different environment across the river in the working-class environment of Walworth. The flat she buys is a semi-basement down in the front area of an old Victorian house in Apricot Place. It is the house once owned by Mrs. Dulcimer and visited by Joseph.
As we learn about the women who once lived in the house and Joseph's involvement with them, some of the strangeness Madeleine feels in the flat begins to link past and present. And sometimes, this time-link becomes so close, the paths of characters from the different centuries cross, although only the reader realizes this.
London itself is a very real presence in this book. Not just its streets, but its markets, its history, the noise, the dirt, the smells, the varied multitude of people who live there, and the closeness between neighbors. Michele Roberts immerses the reader in all this and brings London vividly (and for a Londoner like me, realistically) to life. Apricot Place may not be there on Google maps, but the route Madeleine's taxi takes to get there is. So is the old market, which is still know as "The Lane."
Some of the streets and sites are not quite where Roberts describes them, but the cemetery for prostitutes in Redcross Way and its history as the burial place for the "Winchester Geese," who once were licensed by the Bishop of Winchester to ply their trade close to his Palace in Southwark, can be found on the Internet, along with information about some of the characters and ceremonies Madeleine watches.
It is easy to get involved with Madeleine's friends and Joseph's family, and with the events and dilemmas they experience. Mrs Dulcimer and her girls are slightly less vividly drawn, but they are still curious and interesting.
As an occasionally ghostly story that interweaves past and present, fact and fiction, this is an entertaining, fascinating, and enjoyable book, and Roberts writes fluently and well.
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