Tom-All-Alone's by Lynn Shepherd

published 2012   chapter 14

Sarah enjoys their walk far more than Charles does. He stops her at the first second-hand clothes stall they come to on Oxford Street and makes her invest part of her new wealth in a decent if rather threadbare military coat. It takes what he considers an unconscionable time to root through all the jumble, but Sarah eventually picks out a dark green merino shawl, badly stained on one side but fringed with bright emerald silk. Thus decked out she becomes animated, almost coquettish, and he’s forced to acknowledge that she has an eye for colour if nothing else. The green makes richer the red in her hair and the swing of the man’s coat flatters her slender tomboyish figure. For a moment – just a moment – he feels a distinct and absurd stirring of desire, which he stifles ruthlessly by reminding himself that this girl can’t be more than a few years older than the little Park Lane princess he saw earlier… He quickens his pace and forces Sarah to run to keep up; the sooner this enforced excursion is done with, the better.

observations: It’s peculiar to pick up a book that pre-supposes that you have read Dickens’ Bleak House – and for extra credit requires knowledge of The French Lieutenant’s Woman and The Woman in White. I’ve read all three, but had a very mixed reaction to the new book. And I can’t guess what you’d make of it if you hadn’t read the Dickens.

Tom-All-Alone’s is a most intriguing novel, and very compelling in parts, but it does suffer from over-research. So there is ‘the brutal reality of the rookery padding-kens’ – they may be real and brutal to the author, but we don’t know what they are. (Except they sound like Georgette Heyer – perhaps a bad-tempered but good-looking, well-dressed and very rich beau is going to turn up in a moment.)

This is such a good book in parts, it’s a shame that Shepherd has sudden lapses into weird banalities like this:
Informer, undercover agent, decoy, spy: Lizzie has been all of this to him, and more. As well as a true and unfailing friend.

-- particularly strange considering that Lizzie plays no part in the book. But the rather-wonderful-undemanding-helper role will be handed over to Molly who is black, doesn’t speak, but likes to have sex with the protagonist, Charles. I had a most unusual reaction to all this: If I had read the book blind I would have been convinced the author was a man, especially as Charles undergoes closely-described and violent tests of strength all the way through his quest.

And yet – it is a most enjoyable and clever book. I just wanted to edit it.

Links on the blog: Charles Dickens has come up several times (though not Bleak House), and The Woman in White (from a guest blogger) is here and here.

The picture is of a young ‘criminal’ called Mary Catherine Docherty, whose photo lives in the Tyne and Wear archives - she was convicted of stealing iron with some friends, and sentenced to seven days hard labour.


  1. Moira - I've read books like that too, that were enjoyable - even quite good - but that I felt needed editing. And I have to say there's something to like about a novel that assumes a well-read reader. Admittedly one doesn't want to exclude readers or make them feel stupid, but it's nice when the author respects the reader enough to assume s/he's done some reading.

  2. Yes you're right - you certainly couldn't accuse this author of dumbing down! And I am definitely going to read more by Shepherd...

  3. I didn't enjoy the book as much as you Moira. 'Bleak House' is my absolute favourite Dickens novel so I'm touchy about any pastiches, sequels etc.

  4. I understand exactly what you mean, Sarah...

  5. I wonder if you've ever come across Tattycoram by Audrey Thomas. I think you might like it. I need to find my copy and re-read this summer (when I am in the house with all the books).

    1. The name of the book is familiar but not the author, I will look it up. Oh, just did so, and of course name is familiar from Dickens! Book sounds excellent, I will order.
      I'm so glad I was reminded to look again at this post, because I think that picture is compelling and marvellous, I would love to know what happened to her.


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