Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials is a fantastically immersive series, so I was pleased to stumble across more of Pullman’s work in the form of The Sally Lockhart Mysteries. So far I’ve read the first two instalments in the series, The Ruby in the Smoke and The Shadow in the North, and they are ticking all the good-book boxes for me. Set in Victorian London, the novels engage in subtle and fascinating ways with traditions of Victorian fiction.
The Ruby in the Smoke is clearly the fictional offspring of Wilkie Collins’ The Moonstone. Both are centred around the whereabouts of a mysterious Indian jewel with a dark and bloody history. The novel engages in a knowing way with the tradition of sensation fiction: Jim devours sensational novels, and this enables him to solve the mystery of the ruby. As Rosa explains, ‘He – you know those stories he’s always reading – I suppose he thinks like a sensational novelist’ (1985, p. 185). Pullman uses this foundation, however, to carve new ground: ultimately, the ruby itself is not the driving force of the novel. Underlying the search for the ruby is a far more disturbing tale of opium addiction, unrequited love and family secrets. The antagonist of the first novel, Mrs Holland, whose web of criminal connections grants an oppressively claustrophobic sense to the sprawling urban setting, commits suicide during her confrontation with Sally. Unable to escape from her past, she leaps after the ruby to her death.
The Shadow in the North expands upon this engagement with Victorian literature. The detective agency Sally heads signifies a significant nod in the direction of Sherlock Holmes. (I had always thought that the detective genre was an invention of the Victorian age, but apparently it has much deeper roots: http://bit.ly/U6f1ew) Pullman’s satirical portrayal of the misplaced charity of the upper classes reminded me of Mrs Jellyby in Bleak House: such is her concern for the plight of the poor in Africa, she is blind to the suffering of her own children. Her eyes have a far-away look, as though ‘they could see nothing nearer than Africa’ (Dickens 1993 , p. 33). Dickens critiques the inability of the upper classes to respond to the problem of poverty close at hand, such as the Victorian slums, famously portrayed in Bleak House as Tom All-Alone’s. Pullman performs a similar critique: the charity of Lady Harborough, for example, seems
to consist largely of rescuing unmarried mothers from poverty, and subjecting them to slavery instead, with the additional disadvantage of being preached at daily by evangelical clergymen (1999, p. 61).
The novel also references the Vampire tradition, popularised by Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Joe, an aspiring playwright, receives a rejection letter from Stoker himself: ‘I thought it had an unmistakable vigour and life, though I feel that vampires, as a subject, are played out’ (1999, p. 81).
For all these references to the classics of the Victorian era, however, Pullman presents these connections with a distinctly modern perspective. His Victorian London is in many ways more sensational, more mysterious, and far more realistic than that of Collins or Dickens. There is a greater sense of threat here: the mysteries are not merely cases of inheritance or infidelity, but truly matters of life and death. Sensational fiction was considered immoral because of the physical effect it produced on its readers; it was believed to induce fainting fits in its frail female readership. I experienced something close to this effect at the climax of The Shadow in the North. The novel deals with much darker threats than I would have expected from a young adult series.
Fingers crossed I find the next two instalments, The Tiger in the Well and The Tin Princess, under the tree tomorrow! Pullman is a truly captivating storyteller.