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Waterfront Festival

Ann Featherstone

16 June 11 words: James Walker
Discusses the performing dogs and freak shows of Victorian London featured in her EMBA nominated The Newgate Jig
 "The overflowing churchyards and children playing football with a human skull they found. The underbelly of the period is so fascinating."

Ann Featherstone has been nominated for the EMBA Award for exposing the dark underbelly of Victorian London in her second novel The Newgate Jig. It’s told from the perspective of Bob Chapman, an entertainer who aspires to leave the slums and make it big on a more respectable stage with his beloved dogs Brutus and Nero. Imbued with a trusting and kind nature he offers hope in an otherwise bleak and harsh world. This is in contrast to the main protagonist of her previous novel, Walking in Pimlico, which saw a street-wise and cocky Corney Sage guide us through the freak shows and music halls of the period. It would appear Ann is building up the definitive Victorian landscape in the tradition of Balzac’s comédie humaine and perhaps more familiar to these shores, Sillitoe’s Nottingham. We caught up with her to find out more about her Victorian obsession and why she believes certain things still haven’t changed: ‘What a world of gammon and spinach it is, though, ain’t it.’

What does the Newgate Jig mean?
It’s what you do if you’re hanging on the gallows – you dance the Newgate Jig. I like that 19th century black humour. The opening of the novel sees a man hung and is very much a homage to William Thackeray’s 1840 essay Going to see a man Hanged.

Is this a crime novel then?
I’ve never thought of myself as a crime writer: I’m not clever enough. I can never work out who’s dunnit and as for coming up with a tricky plot ...So I’d say it’s a historical novel in which crime is a major feature.

You’ve been compared to Sarah Waters and Michel Faber but I see more of Dickensian influence as we see a collection of misfits living by their wits. Who and what influences your work?
Dickens is the master in my opinion. He draws characters who live and creates environments in which they walk about. Those are the key elements in his novels and they are in mine.  But I’d say it’s not just Dickens’ fiction that influences my writing; I love his journalism too. In fact, I love the newspapers and journals of the period and I read them avidly. Working at the University of Manchester, I’m very fortunate that I have access to them online, so I can immerse myself in Blackwood’s Magazine and The Era and the very wonderful and gory Illustrated Police News. You get a very strong sense of the ‘music’ and ‘rhythm’ of 19th century speech from reading the journalism of the time, particularly court reports where you get verbatim records of court proceedings.

What is it about this period that you love so much?
I’ve always loved it. It’s so familiar – and that’s due to Dickens, Wilkie Collins, M R James – who’s not strictly Victorian, of course, the BBC Classic Serial which was essential Sunday afternoon viewing as a child, and the many wonderful period movies - Oliver Twist, Great Expectations, Gaslight. More recently Child of the Jago by Arthur Morrison – a masterpiece in London slum living, and modern revelations by Peter Ackroyd have helped crystallise this passion.

There’s plenty of books and TV programmes on the monumental aspects of the period – the Great Exhibition, the Pre-Raphaelites, Queen Victoria. What really fascinates me though are the nooks and crannies, the glimpses of everyday life which you get through the journalism – and the extraordinary things that happen:  nights with the Fancy, ‘slumming’, penny shows. The overflowing churchyards and children playing football with a human skull they found. The underbelly of the period is so fascinating.

Are the events in the novel based on real life individuals or situations then?
Well, it’s all factual in a way. I’ve used the research I’ve done into 19th century entertainment and living conditions and just poured it into the novel. For instance, the East London Aquarium and Museum of the novel is based on an actual place – the East London Aquarium, Bishopsgate which was a menagerie and curio exhibition with live acts.

"I think the events in the novel highlight the potential for the exploitation of the weak or the physically or mentally ‘different’ in Victorian society."

And I suspect that the journals of Sydney Race may also have helped shape events. Can you tell us a little bit more about him?
He’s a real Nottingham treasure. He wrote journals from 1892-1900 which are all in the Nottinghamshire Archives, written in old-fashioned exercise books with times-tables on the covers. He was in his teens when he wrote them and was trying out at being a writer – which is what he wanted to do as a career, really. In the novel, Princess Tiny is based on any number of ‘fairy women’ or ‘doll ladies’ who were exhibited in the capital and of course Sydney Race does write about going to see the Living Doll at Goose Fair who used to stand on her head. 

The narrator of the book is Bob Chapman, a stage entertainer who performs with his beloved dogs Brutus and Nero. Why did you choose him instead of, say, young Barney Kevill – whose father dances the Newgate Jig?
A number of reasons. I needed a strong voice, one that was distinct and, above all, authentic. So it had to be a mature person really; it’s very hard to have a child telling a story, because a child can’t always go to places that an adult can, and understand what he or she is seeing. I did consider Barney as a narrator, actually, but rejected it for those very reasons. I also wanted a contrast with Corney Sage, the main narrator in Walking in Pimlico. Corney is very worldly-wise and quite a tough-nut. I wanted a different voice, and a different view of the world. In a way Chapman and Sage move in the same world, but they see it differently.

Chapman is a really lovely character. Innocent, naive, but also aspirational, hoping to move his act upmarket from the Aquarium to a more respectable setting. Where did he come from and is he typical of this type of performer?
I’m glad you like Bob. He breaks my heart every time I think of his trusting nature and hopefulness in his wicked world. And his children are his dogs, Brutus and Nero, and that makes him even more endearing. There was a real ‘dog-man’, James Matthews, who had performing dogs which he toured in the low theatres and in circuses, just like Bob. They were very clever dogs and apparently one of them rescued a drowning child and Matthews was presented with a medal.  But, tragically, Matthews fell ill with bronchitis and was unable to work and, in an age where if you didn’t work you didn’t eat, he was unable to keep his dogs. He couldn’t afford to feed them nor buy a dog-licence, and he had them put down. He wrote about it very movingly in his autobiography, a book which shows him to be a very talented man, kind and sensitive too. I’ve tried to capture something of James Matthews in Bob Chapman.

The book has a very dark theme. Was it your intention to highlight the suffering of children when you set out to write the book or did it simply make a good plot?
I had an idea about crimes involving children because I’d been reading about them, in particular, the investigative journalism of W T Stead for the Pall Mall Gazette, but I didn’t have the intention of highlighting them. Because the research comes first and the plot grows out of it, I think there is a different process going on. It wasn’t a conscious decision.

Similarly, how were your publishers when you approached them with this taboo subject matter? I ask as I imagine it could make marketing the book difficult and publishers seem less likely to take a risk nowadays.
I think because the children aren’t the focus of the plot, it was not an issue. Terrible things happen in the novel, but not just to children. Princess Tiny has a pretty awful time, and the treatment of Pilgrim, the mad bookseller is cruel. I think the events in the novel highlight the potential for the exploitation of the weak or the physically or mentally ‘different’ in Victorian society. Some people weren’t squeamish. And some people, sadly, still aren’t.

Some of the characters from your first novel, Walking in Pimlico, reappear in this book. Are you trying to create a definitive Victorian London landscape similar in principle to Balzac’s comédie humaine?
I must admit I like the idea of creating a ‘world’ in which a population of characters come and go, and it’s funny you should mention Balzac, because my maitre was Zola and his Rougons-Macquart epic. There’s something very satisfying about following a character you’ve already met and, hopefully, will meet again in another setting and having that setting clear and accessible, because you’ve been there before. So the Constellation Music Hall of Walking in Pimlico pops up in The Newgate Jig and reappears in the third book I’m working on now. Mr Pickuls, the proprietor of the Constellation also appears. But the narrator of the third book is Will Lovegrove, the leading actor at the Pavilion Theatre and friend of Bob Chapman. I wanted to tell his story almost as soon as he walked into The Newgate Jig!

Your novels deal with the dark underbelly of Victorian culture, taking us through the music halls, circus rings and freak shows of the period. But reading this I wonder how much has really changed? Certain Reality TV programmes seem to have a similar appetite for public humiliation and schadenfreude...
Probably not a lot has changed in this respect. Some people are still cruel, will bully the weak, exploit the vulnerable, and see nothing wrong in what they do. Reality TV does pretty much the same thing. But it has ever been so, unfortunately. “What a world of gammon and spinach it is, though, ain’t it?” as Miss Mowcher said to David Copperfield...

The winner of the East Midlands Book Award will be announced at the Lowdham Book Festival on 20 June. For more information on other events, please see the Lowdham website.

The Newgate Jig was published by John Murray.
James Walker’s website

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