Tuesday, 30 April 2013

Montmorency: Thief, Liar, Gentleman? by Eleanor Updale: Book review

Drink with this:


Delectable combination of beer mixed with ginger beer. Slight alcoholic buzz but can still be classed as a drink fit for a child if diluted enough. Fizzy bubbly excitement from the ginger beer suitable for ups and downs of this fairly sedate thriller. Pleasant and drinkable and evocative of afternoons in the beer garden.

What’s what

Sometimes I feel that the sum result of four years of an English degree, encompassing countless classic works of literature and literary criticism dating back to the 13th Century, has boiled down to a fondness for the Victorians, and the melodramatic, convoluted literature they wrote, which I just can’t shake. The thought that I’m never going to be able to read Vanity Fair, Middlemarch or Bleak House again for the first time ever pains me in the way I imagine normal people feel about memories of their first kiss or first taste of a perfectly balanced mojito.

Montmorency - Thief, Liar, Gentleman? is Victorian Lit Lite. I didn’t realise it was a young adult novel until I’d already started reading, and then just succumbed to the undemanding and enjoyable story. Montmorency is a thief who suffered devastating injuries while in the midst of his last job. Recovering in the prison hospital, he formulates a cunning plan to use the newly constructed London sewer system as a conduit for burglaries of London’s great, good, and loaded.

Of necessity he creates a dual identity - Scarper does the dirty work and poses as his manservant while he is Montmorency, the gentleman who lives a life of luxury made possible by ill-gotten gains. These distinct personalities are one of the most interesting parts of the book, especially as the story goes on and our protagonist identifies ever more with his Montmorency side and feels growing distaste for Scarper. Sure, it is just Jekyll and Hyde but lacking any psychological depth whatsoever; but there is a still a voyeuristic pleasure to be had in reading the about the conflicts between these contrasting halves of the same life.

In the pub, Scarper had briefly toyed with the notion of putting a permanent end to the risk by killing Mr. Rigby, but back in the Marimion, Montmorency knew that such behavior was out of the question, and he despised Scarper for even entertaining the idea.

Updale’s writing is amusing and witty and her plot bounds along at a brisk pace. There are some moments which stretch the bounds of credibility, but nothing which disrupts the pleasure of the story. Montmorency is a rather gentle and endearing character, who develops convincingly as the book progresses. If anything I’d have liked a bit more backstory for him and a bit more grit to his amoral edges but then it’s a sad truth that young adult novels tend to err on the side of caution when it comes to their anti-heroes’ bad boy ways.

Scarper didn’t ask questions. He didn’t want them asking questions of him. But he fancied having a look at what went on when glitter briefly overlaid the filth.

Perhaps the hardest part of the story to believe was Montmorency’s fairly speedy transformation into a gentleman and his relatively easy entree into the world of aristocratic London. Anyone familiar with the trials and tribulations of Becky Sharp knows that ascent to the top of the ton depended on more than a charming smile and the right evening clothes. It would have been fun to see the fictionalised world of the upper classes depicted in a bit more detail but there are plenty of other young adult historical novels I can go to for that, although those are sadly lacking in sewers.

“Smokes,” as Montmorency guessed, turned out to be the smoking room. Later, he was to discover the dining rooms: “Big Eats” (referred to by the more boyish members as “Eats Major”) and “Little Eats” (“Eats Minor”). There were also bars: “Big Drinks” and “Little Drinks” (each with its Latin tag: “Drinks Major,” “Drinks Minor”); “Private Drinks” (also known as “Plotters”); a library (“Swotters”); and a terrace (“The Parade”) leading to a small garden (“Outers”). The washrooms and lavatories were “Wetties” and “Ploppers,” respectively.

That’s probably why Victorian lit lite hasn’t really caught on as a genre. Novels of the Victorian age revelled in details and pompous descriptive writing. Updale sacrifices this for a lighter story and quicker pacing suitable for her younger audience.


Delightful romp through the sewers of Victorian London.

On the big screen

This is calling out to be made into a British children’s film. Stephen Fry as Lord Fox-Selwyn! I am seriously considering contacting Eleanor Updale with regards to this possibility. All interested parties get in touch!


A dumbed-down Oliver Twist; a more intellectual take on Alex Rider.

No comments:

Post a Comment