Over years of being a literary journalist, books have come into my hands that I haven’t got round to reading. In many cases I never will; but every so often I pick something up to while away a few hours. First in an occasional series is Nicholas Griffin’s ‘The House of Sight and Shadow’, published by Abacus in 2001. (Gosh – a long time ago!)
Historical novelists rarely forego the opportunity to have their protagonists rub shoulders with compelling real-life characters. So if the setting is London and it’s the early 18th century, there’s a good chance they will encounter the infamous thief-taker, Jonathan Wild, and his cohort, the burglar and serial prison-escapee Jack Sheppard. Griffin has not resisted, any more than did Jake Arnott in his last novel, ‘The Fatal Tree’. Griffin doesn’t use the colourful underworld cant that Arnott relishes, but then his focus is upon higher echelons of society. At first I found it distracting that Griffin’s lead character is called Bendix, like the narrator of Graham Greene’s ‘The End of the Affair’. Then I forgot all about that as the narrative wove its spell.
This Bendix, one Joseph, having been romantically burnt in Paris by a married noblewoman, becomes apprenticed to Sir Edmund Calcraft, an unconventional surgeon based in Lincoln’s Inn Fields. Bendix is from a well-to-do family but is unlikely to inherit. Older than the usual apprentice, he retains ideas above his current station, sometimes having to bite back a retort when chided by his master. Still sighing over his lost Comtesse, Bendix finds an outlet for his romantic nature when he discovers that in the other wing, Calcraft is keeping his daughter sequestered from the world. Amelia is unable to tolerate daylight; can her father and would-be lover restore her failing sight despite radically different theories of medicine?
Both men have recourse to the dismal trade of the bodysnatcher, another well-worn trope of historical fiction. Calcraft’s notions are half-magical, half-scientific, as he actively seeks out the corpses of wicked men, with the help of the pamphleteer and novelist Daniel Defoe. I did wonder whether a young man of the period would own quite so many silk suits as Bendix does, and the way he flings golden guineas seems excessive. But generally this feels like an authentic, lived-in eighteenth century London, filled with charm and menace, populated with charlatans and link boys, coachmen and chambermaids, with a plot thematically poised between the light of knowledge and the dark of unreason:
The house, from the western wing to the basement, was bathed in a compromise of light. Neither was it illuminated by the bright candles that usually accompanied the doctor’s work, nor dimmed for Amelia’s muted world. Instead Lemon had placed lanterns with opaque glass about the steps to the basement, so that every ten yards yielded soft orange light as if suns were setting all about the house.