Exams are now underway, so I’ve recently been seeking refuge in my favourite fictional hideaway: Victorian London. Lynne Shepherd’s Tom-All-Alone’s is a refashioning of Charles Dickens’ Bleak House. Unlike, for example, the way in which novels like Wide Sargasso Sea respond to apparent flaws in their parent-texts, Shepherd’s intertextual engagement is instead the result of an affection for the original work. While the novel does, as I hope to illustrate, present an alternative perspective on Dickensian London, it still acknowledges the brilliance of Bleak House. As Tom-All-Alone’s is, at heart, a detective story, I will be overlooking certain aspects of the novel in this post for the benefit of potential readers (and I would recommend it to anyone, even if you aren’t particularly of Dickens; it might even be a more interesting read if you were disappointed by Bleak House).
The parallels between the narratives of Bleak House and Tom-All-Alone’s are established from the outset of Shepherd’s novel, as the prologue borrows its opening lines from Dickens: ‘London. Michaelmas Term lately over, and the Lord Chancellor sitting in Lincoln’s Inn Hall…’ Yet by the fourth sentence, Tom-All-Alone’s has carved out its own path. While both openings describe the fog, mud and grime of the city, Tom-All-Alone’s gives greater focus to the inhabitants of this fetid world, which Shepherd likens to a circle of hell. The novel also utilises the narrative technique of Bleak House, which alternates between an omniscient, bird’s eye view of the city, and the contrastingly naive voice of Esther. This latter voice is recast in Shepherd’s novel as Hester, and that’s absolutely everything I can say about her without potentially ruining the novel. Although Hester’s narrative frequently interrupts his story, Tom-All-Alone’s is largely concerned with the life of Charles Maddox, a private detective (which, let’s face it, is the occupation of all the best protagonists). The novel also features key characters from Bleak House, including Lady Dedlock, although her secret is dwarfed by the mysteries Maddox stumbles onto.
Tom-All-Alone’s makes explicit references to the life of Charles Dickens; the reader is transported to the parts of London frequented by Dickens and which provided the source material for his Sketches by Boz. Shepherd forefronts Dickens in order to dispel the myth of Dickensian London. The figure of Dickens, Shepherd suggests, ‘conjures up colour and carol singers and jolly old gentlemen’. To combat this image, Shepherd orientates Tom-All-Alone’s around the eponymous slum, which lends an underlying sense of threat to Bleak House. Through this device, the issues of poverty, madness and social deprivation are allowed to take centre-stage. The novel is also successful in challenging the Dickensian convention of narrative closure:
‘Don’t you like Dickens, uncle?’
Maddox snorts and looks at him with undisguised contempt. ‘Life rarely provides what you so tritely term a ‘happy ending’, and certainly not in the mawkish fashion to which this fellow seems so attached.’
Lynne Shepherd has also written Murder at Mansfield Park, a retelling of the Jane Austen novel. As I’m much less enamoured with Austen, I’m very curious to see what use Shepherd makes of the darker topics that Austen tends to side-step.