Paupers' tales and London's Plague open doors to
While the nation drools over screen versions of Jane Austen, Rodney Bennett's Angel Voice takes a look at the flip-side of 18th-century life in Bath, the city Austen once called "that vile metropolis". While the Pump Room set went about its business, children starved, prostitution was rife and beggars wandered the streets.
Leaving the aristocracy behind, Bennett crosses the river to the marshes where a group of bedraggled orphans survive as pickpockets. Here we have shades of Dickens with modern themes. Alongside dastardly deeds of exploitation, abduction and murder, adolescent paupers grapple with their sexuality, taking to gin, struggling with menstruation and abortion.
Enter the villain, Captain Ryder, intent on revenge on "Lordy Molyneaux",an aristocratic fop whose family sacked Ryder's mother, a maidservant, when she was pregnant with him by a younger Molyneaux. Ever resentful of being the underdog, but adept in the underworld, Ryder alights on Ossie, a member of the pickpocket gang, a blind boy with an "angel voice". Ryder, believing Ossie's singing will bring him fame and fortune, kidnaps the boy (separating him from his beloved and consumptive sister) and sets out on a mission to ingratiate himself with the upper classes.
The attempt to make the convoluted plot work means some of the events towards the end lose credibility. It is hard to believe, for example, that Ryder would so readily be accepted into Bath high society, but Angel Voice presents a gripping introduction to the underside of Jane Austen's world, bringing social history alive.
Maggie Prince, too, has created a book to kindle interest in history. Here Comes a Candle will send you running to Samuel Pepys's diaries to find out more about the Plague years. This is an intriguing story, dealing with the idea of a London built up out of layers of history and intersecting seams of time like a children's version of a Peter Ackroyd.
Although there is nothing new about youngsters stepping through 20th-century doors into the 17th-century past - Alan Garner mastered it long ago - Maggie Prince writes with great energy, spinning a spine-chilling tale which, like Bennett's, deals with the poor and disenfranchised.
The novel's sheer verve and pace means the plot takes the odd stumble, but many of the ideas, characterisation and description are totally absorbing. Moreover, the author ia able to weave the terrors of the past into predicaments shared by many of today's adolescents.
Emily's parents' divorce means change: she moves into a small terraced house on Hound Hill with her mum and brother Jonah, and transfers from an independent school to the local comp. At first she is churlish and resentful, but the strange things happening at home and on the street distract her. Rats invade the house and Emily receives regular visits from Seth, who lived there when the Plague gripped London. She feels the dying victims clawing at her clothes.
It seems that the pain of separation has given her the ability to communicate with the past - an ability shared by some of her neighbours. The great suffering of those years has meant that the past - "not the romantic past, but the real past when people starved in gutters" - cannot die.
In her author's note Maggie Prince supplies a simple bibli-ography, including Defoe's A Journal of the Plague Year and Camus's The Plague - captivating stuff for those teenagers who will surely be fired to read further.