I’m teaching a lot of fairly heavy texts this term, and texts that are outside my area of specialty, and so in this time of COVID especially, when I read for myself, I find myself reaching for books that are pretty low stakes. I haven’t got a lot of energy for being haunted by a book most days (exceptions carved out for poetry). And that’s how I wound up borrowing the ebook of Sarah M. Eden’s The Gentleman and the Thief from the local library. It sounded light, and fun, and I think the Victorian era of penny dreadful literature was a hoot, so if that’s woven in too, well, why not?
The plot setup is simple. Hollis Darby is the younger son in a genteel family whose fortunes have seen better days: he must provide for himself, and so he secretly writes a popular series of penny dreadfuls under the name Lafayette Jones; he is also a member of a secret organization of fellow authors that keep tabs on crime that exploits the most vulnerable of London’s citizens. Ana Newport is also a scion of a formerly prosperous family, but they were cast from Society when her father lost his fortune, and she teaches music at a school run by a woman who is also a member of Darby’s secret literary crimefighting society. She also moonlights as a thief, stealing back the sentimental treasures of her family from those who took them. She and Hollis cross paths in a perfectly respectable way, at first, but his investigations also cause him to encounter her in her other occupation as a thief. When the criminal underworld threatens people they care about, they join together to do something about it. Voila. A lighthearted caper with flying sparks between the two leads.
Eden does quite a few things well. Hollis and Ana are both thoroughly likable, and both immediately like one another; there’s no attempt to manufacture false conflict between them at the start. Here’s two pretty people with similar values who are attracted to each other: the conflicts are external, instead of interpersonal. The setting is, overall, fun, striking a balance between, say, the grimdark London of a show like Sean Bean’s Frankenstein Chronicles (mmm, smell the syphilis) and the too-tidy, too-pretty London of, for instance, Bridgerton (though I know that’s Regency and not Victorian–but you catch my meaning. The urchins are charmingly Dickensian but exploitation is real. The interludes with chapters from the various penny dreadfuls are a pretty charming idea.
But there are a few weaknesses, too. Sadly, the penny dreadful chapters are among them, for me (alas, alas!): I’ve read a lot of Victorian prose, and the narration style of these interludes is staunchly 21st century, making them read like modern middle-grade fiction rather than a tale roughly contemporary with Dickens. It tended to break rather than enhance the mood for me, even if the stories themselves were cute (maybe too cute for penny dreadfuls; these are penny pleasants). Also, the stakes are almost too low in Hollis and Ana’s budding romance: she of course wins over his cherished niece without issue, and he charms her reclusive father in a single brief visit. There’s one hiccup, but it’s over so briefly, you’d almost blink if you missed it. Not that I want manufactured drama, but this was almost too easy and breezy, especially against a backdrop of a brutal criminal mastermind who is not only stealing rich people’s fortunes but also holding working-class Londoners in a kind of virtual slavery, and is so terrifying that even small children are convinced he’ll murder them personally if they are saved by the crusading Dread Penny Society. It’s…a bit of a tonal clash.
And yet. It’s likable. It’s light. It’s not going to haunt me at all, and that was exactly what I was looking for. So I might hunt down the first book in the series, and I’ll probably read the third if it pops up in my library’s catalog. If you, too, need something mild, that goes down easy as a cup of tea in the afternoon, here’s a book for you.