The Walworth Beauty by Michele Roberts

In brief: A story across two time periods – Joseph, working as a researching for Henry Mayhew on the working class people of London; and Madeleine, a redundant lecturer who moves to Apricot Place to find the past lingering.

The good: Michele Roberts’ prose is beautiful.

The not-so-good: Wasn’t always convinced by Madeleine’s feelings of the past.

Why I chose it: Looked really interesting, thank you Bloomsbury for the ARC.

Year: 2017

Pages: 389

Publisher: Bloomsbury

Setting: London, past and present

Rating: 7 out of 10

I do love a story with a dual timeline, especially one that includes London and its history. When I first heard about The Walworth Beauty, I was really intrigued. I didn’t know very much about Henry Mayhew and to read about one of his researchers sounded like a great way to learn some history combined in fiction. But what really struck me on reading this book was the strength of Michele Roberts’ prose. It’s dense, poetic and lyrical. It sweeps you up in the London fog and puts you right in the place of some of the action, Apricot Place.

The story in split into two parts, almost modern day London (2011) with Madeleine and in 1851 with Joseph. Madeleine is discontent with her life – she lost her job as a lecturer and now living in the heart of London’s City district doesn’t feel quite right. So she moves out to South London to Apricot Place. The people there are different – friendly, exotic and somehow more real life. With more time Madeleine becomes interested in the works of Henry Mayhew and the past comes back to touch her. In 1851, Joseph used to be a police clerk, until dysentery and sickness took him away. Now he’s a researcher for Henry Mayhew, being paid to ask questions of the working class people of London, in particular prostitutes. It’s a tempting place for Joseph and after his coat is taken at one house, he is intrigued by Mrs Dulcimer who hides a lot of secrets…

No matter what time period you’re reading about, the setting is incredibly realistic. It’s clear that Roberts has done her research carefully, right down to the last detail. London is lovingly rendered, both the good and the less desirable. I felt that Joseph’s past was incredibly well rendered and true to the issues of the time. Another thing that struck me is the use of food – Madeleine cooks various dishes and reflects on those eaten by Mayhew’s subjects. Food also plays a role in Joseph’s home life – from the horrible chops to the more desirable street food.

I did find Joseph’s story more interesting than Madeleine’s, possibly because of the setting. It’s rich with detail unfamiliar to me, while I know already what Madeleine’s daily life looks like in London. Hence I didn’t always find her connections to the past convincing. I found myself more comfortable in Joseph’s world. But overall, I thought the prose was the standout of this story – rich and leaving me wanting more.

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