Published: April 20th, 2017
Synopsis: 2011: When Madeleine loses her job as a lecturer, she decides to leave her riverside flat in cobbled Stew Lane, where history never feels far away, and move to Apricot Place. Yet here too, in this quiet Walworth cul-de-sac, she senses the past encroaching: a shifting in the atmosphere, a current of unseen life.
1851: and Joseph Benson has been employed by Henry Mayhew to help research his articles on the working classes. A family man with mouths to feed, Joseph is tasked with coaxing testimony from prostitutes. Roaming the Southwark streets, he is tempted by brothels’ promises of pleasure – and as he struggles with his assignment, he seeks answers in Apricot Place, where the enigmatic Mrs Dulcimer runs a boarding house.
As these entwined stories unfold, alive with the sensations of London past and present, the two eras brush against each other – a breath at Madeleine’s neck, a voice in her head – the murmurs of ghosts echoing through time. Rendered in immediate, intoxicating prose, The Walworth Beauty is a haunting tale of desire and exploitation, isolation and loss, and the faltering search for human connection; this is Michèle Roberts at her masterful best.
Diversity: Mrs Dulcimer is a black woman. Tony and Anthony are a gay couple that romance and love and marry over the course of the story.
Warnings: Infanticide, frequent sexual descriptions, racial slurs, derogatory terms for women
Thank you to NetGalley and Bloomsbury for the chance to read this in advance.
The Walworth Beauty is the story of life, spread over time but connected by space.
In this novel, you follow the lives of Joseph and Madeline. The twist? Joseph is from 1851 and Madeline from 2011. This isn’t a novel that is carried by plot – it’s carried by characters and moments of their lives, all focused around two things – Apricot Place and the lives of women.
The first thing to note about this story is the strength of the author’s voice. Michèle Roberts has so much beauty in her writing. Eloquent and elaborate, the language wraps this book in dramatic metaphors and wonderful description that really sets the world as something tangible.
This is a story about place and that place is London. With so much history and so many lives that have lived and died there, everything has a history. Everything has had a life before. Joseph walks streets that Madeline walks over a century later, streets that you have walked down yourself. This familiarity of this London makes it easy to imagine, to put yourself in place of the characters and see what they see.
The use of women – and particular the discussion of what women throughout history have gone through – is really interesting to read about. Joseph works for Mayhew, historic creator of the London Poverty Map, and over the course of the story and has been given the task of documenting the lives of the prostitutes on Surrey side. In doing this, he gets too close, reacts too personally with those he comes in contact with and from here, begins to understand this difficult world for women much better than he had before.
Both Joseph and Madeline were interesting to read about. Coming from completely different worlds, with different beliefs and social structures around them, they are written from completely different points as they experience the same places. But their conflicts feel real, they’re uncertain is real, their loneliness and their attractions are real.
Any criticisms of the characters fall onto the Joseph point of view chapters, which have a strange focus on sex – with his ex-wife, Nathalie; with his current wife, Cara; with sex workers, and a few strange paragraphs or two that brought his mother into this. He also has a penchant for eavesdropping on private conversations, usually that of two women in the privacy of a closed room, and thus makes him much harder for him to be likeable.
The way to the two worlds overlap is interesting. Whilst not what was originally expected, it remains very interesting, like reading companion pieces with hidden easter eggs. 1951 and 2011 overlap through the steps most travelled – through names on gravestones and treasures found at the bottom of a garden.
There are flaws in this novel. It took a while for any kind of interest in the characters to form. It’s also quite a slow start and the heavy description that Roberts uses in her work aids that – it becomes heavy, dense to read. It feels like you’ve been reading forever but so little has actually happened, so few pages have been turned.