Derby Day by D.J. Taylor

Article published on July 27, 2011.

D.J. Taylor’s latest novel Derby Day is what one would expect from the biographer of Thackeray, and expert on the Victorian novel and society. The novel as a form found its home in the Victorian world: plot driven and some what scandalous, it gathered a mass readership from the expanding middle classes, with writers such as Charles Dickens finding exposure in weekly newspaper periodicals. Taylor’s novel draws on the all encompassing nature of a Dickens novel; the complex web of characters and incident, the mystery of Wilkie Collins and the melodrama and scandal of Thackeray. Derby Day is as much an homage to the Victorian novel as a work in its own right.

The novel centres around the Epsom Derby and charts a vast array of characters’ actions as the plot leads up to this momentous event. It focuses on a great horse Tiberius and the underhand scheming that goes on behind the scenes of the famous race. At the onset of the novel Tiberius is owned by Mr. Davenant whose estate Scroop Hall in Lincolnshire has fallen on hard times. Mr Happerton, a man who is ‘not a gentleman’, sets out to ruin Davenant and procure Tiberius to run under his new wife Rebecca’s colours at the Derby race. Happerton is involved in a plot to gain money from Mr. Gresham, Rebecca’s father, a theft in a jewellers’ store and other dealings with which he will make his fortune placing bets at the Derby race.

What Happerton does not bargain for is his wife. Rebecca is a women that neither her father nor husband understands. She is aloof and cold, calculating and unfeeling. Neither man trusts her and they are suspicious of her strange nature. She also puzzles characters outside her family unit who think her spoilt. When Rebecca finds out about Happerton’s betrayal with a prostitute, she sets about to ruin him and ultimately succeeds. It is Rebecca who is the ‘Becky Sharp’ of the novel, by the end she is a free woman and unanswerable to any man, she is happy for the first time in her life, living alone on the continent .

Tyler creates a world with a multitude of vibrant characters from the wealthy Greshams of Belgravia, to the thieves and villians that lurk beneath the veneer of polite society: Happerton, his scruffy assistant Captain Raff; and Pardew; his villanous accomplice. The large cast of participants gives the novel the feel of a Victorian novel, showing us a section of society in which nothing is forgotten or missed out. For a modern reader, too much is perhaps spelt out, as the mystery which confounds the characters is obvious to the reader.

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