[30 May 2007]
Texan novelist Deanna Raybourn’s debut effort, Silent in the Grave, starts off promisingly. A killer first sentence, a dramatic death, and a dark, handsome stranger are all packed into an opening chapter that grabs the reader by the scruff of the neck. It’s something of a shame that the rest of the book doesn’t quite deliver.
In what appears to be the first in a series of crime novels set in Victorian England, Raybourn introduces her protagonists—naïve and closeted aristocrat Lady Julia Grey and the brooding, mysterious detective Nicholas Brisbane. The death of Lady Julia’s husband brings these two different personalities together when Brisbane suggests that Sir Edward’s demise was due to foul play. So begins a journey that brings Lady Julia into contact with a London underworld she had never encountered before and even closer contact with Brisbane.
Unfortunately, this kind of “unlikely” pairing—the strong, intelligent heroine and the haughty-but-handsome hero—has been used far too often in the last two centuries to be even slightly unexpected. The Brontë sisters and Jane Austen, in whose debt Raybourn clearly rests, effectively trademarked the idea before Lady Julia Grey was even born.
That is not to say that the sexual tension driving Silent in the Grave is ineffective. The reason why these kind of opposites-attract storylines have been so enduring is that they do indeed work. They provide ample opportunities for dramatic set-pieces and for prolonging the reader’s satisfaction almost indefinitely. Yet while reading Austen it feels like an archetype, reading Raybourn it feels closer to cliché.
Fortunately, the plot itself sticks closer to the conventions of 21st century crime fiction and the juxtaposition with the restrained setting is refreshing. The quest for the true cause of Sir Edward’s death takes the reader into some truly dark territory. Themes and circumstances that would have caused the hardiest Victorian to blush are revealed with a matter-of-fact candour. We have a come a long way since “the butler did it”.
Over the course of this investigation, Lady Julia undergoes a dramatic transformation. From beginnings as a young widow feeling the stifling effects of social convention (and mountains of black fabric) to a gutsy tracker of criminals, our heroine realises internal strength and a curious unflappability in the face of shocking revelations. In fact, Lady Julia is so profoundly tolerant, her depiction occasionally seems like anachronistic political correctness.
Admittedly, a member of a large and eccentric family such as Lady Julia’s would develop a certain tolerance that may seem ahead of its time. Nevertheless, it does raise the question of how a modern author can honestly depict less enlightened times while still engendering sympathy for their characters. It comes as a shock to present-day readers of classic novels when their hero suddenly reveals ignorant attitudes about race, sex, or gender that would have been unquestioned at the time. One can therefore understand why a writer would choose to steer their main character towards the more progressive end of the spectrum. Yet it would be unreasonable to expect 19th century people to have the benefit of our education and experience, in the same way that we do not know how our views and attitudes will be perceived by future generations.
This criticism may be unfair. After all, many older novels have examples of “before their time” politics, reminding us that not all were narrow-minded bigots by current standards. We read the anti-colonial satire of Swift’s 18th century Gulliver’s Travels and can be pleasantly surprised. Why shouldn’t a Victorian heroine view the world with a relaxed understanding? No writer can depict the past without some kind of transference of current values, in the same way that representing other cultures is always problematic. The past truly is another country.
Raybourn has at least respected the reader’s intelligence by making Lady Julia’s transformation and development plausible. Her social activist aunt and father, her audacious and sexually frank sister, her attraction to the dangerous and sordid world of Nicholas Brisbane: these are factors that would make a blushing, virginal Lady Julia ridiculous.
If Silent in the Grave is the first of several novels, then Lady Julia’s dignity and intelligence will make her an entertaining detective. Yet how the writer will sustain interest in future novels now that her heroine has come so far will be interesting to see. The dramatic character development really is the heart of Silent in the Grave and it’s unlikely that it would have been nearly as engaging without it.
At its best, historical fiction is an insight into a bygone era, giving flesh to the bones of dates, events and customs. At worst, it’s got bugger all to do with history—the temporal location is a tool, an escapist device to generate automatic glamour and mystique without any of the hard work of plot and character nuance. While Silent in the Grave does not provide completely new insights into Victorian England, it makes the most of its location and provides enough thrills, surprises, and wit to avoid this undignified company. Raybourn has the potential to take her novels beyond genre constraints. We can only hope she does so.