I’ve just finished the Victorian-esque novel Bellman & Black by Diane Setterfield and I have to say that I was extremely impressed by it.
I’ve read many reviews (most of them on Goodreads) stating that this novel was dry, boring, uneventful and a complete waste of time. I could not disagree more. I feel that the readers who wrote these reviews may not be totally experienced with the Victorian genre of novels, and may not truly understand that 19th century literature was not always exciting, enchanting or full of fantasy and extraordinary events. Yes, of course, novels like Jane Eyre and Oliver Twist with their madwomen in attics and fanciful characters like Fagin and the Artful Dodger exist, but there are also those Victorian novels that simply tell the tale of every day life in the 19th century, that choose to focus on one man who is unusual but not altogether very special and tell a tale about his life and struggles. Take for example novels by Dickens such as Our Mutual Friend and A Tale of Two Cities – these novels have become iconic because of the mastery and intellect of their creator, but if you sit down and break them down into their rudimentary components, any reader will find that they are less than extraordinary tales. What does Our Mutual Friend really do but follow John Harman/Rokesmith around London? One entire chapter is devoted to watching him as he walks around the city and contemplates his life. A Tale of Two Cities does much the same, following characters in two different locals, yes, but not doing much more than detailing their personal struggles and trials.
I believe that Setterfield’s novel does exactly the same thing with the character William Bellman, and I found it to be an incredibly accurate, scholarly and loving depiction of 19th century society. Bellman is a fascinating character, even if his story is slow and repetitive at times. Yes, he spends most of the plot completing business, either at his mill or his funeral parlour, but this is what makes his character so interesting and unique – we, as the readers, are called to analyze the actions and decisions of a man who doesn’t do very much, and decide if his success in such a cloistered routine is truly worthwhile. It is true, Bellman wastes much of his life (as his strange “partner” subtly points out to him in the novel’s conclusion) and some may argue that he therefore wastes a perfectly good story – but I would rather choose to believe that the poignancy of Bellman’s story comes from the fact that he accomplishes much technically while simultaneously accomplishing very little emotionally. He has wealth and esteem, and yet he lacks feeling and connection and humanity. He is as complex as any character created by Dickens, and Setterfield allows him to fully inhabit the Victorian era without restraint.
Setterfield is, for this reason, a masterful writer in my opinion. She writes like a Victorian novelist. I have read her first novel The Thirteenth Tale and I thought the exact same thing about her writing style then. Setterfield clearly loves Victorian literature and she isn’t afraid to try to mimic it. Luckily, her strong diction, clever juxtaposition of images and ideas and the smooth, rich pacing of her style mean that she mimics such a prolific genre with class and respect.
Some readers have also argued that Bellman & Black is incorrectly marketed as a ghost story. I wholeheartedly disagree. No, it’s not a ghost story by contemporary standards, but it is indeed a gothic novel in that it deals with dark and macabre themes. It might not be scary, necessarily, but it is eerie, it does leave the reader with a sense of being unsettled and disjointed and contemplative. Perhaps there is no real “ghost” figure, but does Bellman not become a spectre of himself through his losses and turmoil? Is Black not a haunting figure, even if he is merely internal and psychologically fuelled, who follows and torments Bellman’s every move?
I think that readers have been unfairly harsh toward this novel. I had high expectations going into it, and I was not disappointed in the least. It brought me back to reading my favourite Victorian classics. It gave me the same feeling that reading A Christmas Carol for the first time did. No, I was not afraid, but I was moved, curious and entertained. In that regard then, I think Setterfield’s second attempt at novel writing was very successful!
❥❥❥❥ (out of 5)
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