My first novel, A Beautiful Blue Death, takes place in London in the year 1865. One of the most demanding and interesting parts about writing the book was imagining not simply the external ways in which the world was different then – the constant presence of servants, even in poorer families, or the unlit evenings – but also the way in which people must have been different within. Take this passage from page 69, which comes just after the book’s hero, an amateur detective called Charles Lenox, has had an especially taxing winter’s day out on the trail of a murderer:Read an excerpt from A Beautiful Blue Death.
And when the tea came, he felt warm enough, and comfortable in his high-backed chair, watching the snow fall outside, with a paper in his hand that he might choose to read or not, as the mood took him, and a happy heaviness in his eyes, as of contentment.
He asked the girl for his slippers, and she fetched them, and in the space of fifteen minutes happiness had returned to his face, and before he had even had a chance to read the headlines the newspaper had fallen from his hands and he had dozed off pleasantly into sleep.
He awoke thirty minutes later, first half-sleeping and then gently opening his eyes. As he gazed into the whitened street, he thought drowsily that it had been a perfect nap – the sort a man runs into now and again by chance, when he has had a difficult day but comes back to his hearth to find a brief moment of peace and rest, the sort that leaves him renewed, still sleepy, but at ease with the world.
This is one of the book’s quietest moments, coming in between spells of action, but I hope it’s still typical of Lenox’s character. Silently in love, battered by the condescension of his class towards his work as a detective, and in this scene exhausted and cold, the consolations of his world are unassuming, physical, and I think almost lonely. But they are also real. Right now we live in the most exciting time in the history of the world, probably, but as a penalty we have lost to our glittering, electronic lives, laden as they are with transient pleasures, the kind of durable moments of happiness like this that are strewn across Lenox’s days, across Trollope’s novels or Gaskell’s. Were they better, those small moments, than ours? Not necessarily. But they were real. And as a writer I wanted to be faithful to them.
Later in A Beautiful Blue Death and especially in its sequel The September Society, which I’ve just finished writing, Lenox has fewer of these half-happy, half-sad interludes, mostly because he grows closer to Lady Jane Grey, his best friend. A book needs a love story, after all. But I also wanted to indicate the long years before the threshold of love (and before the book’s action) during which Lenox has been a solitary creature, and completely Victorian in his unfussy demands – a cup of tea, a fire, the snow outside, in a time when those things were enough.
Visit the complete list of books in the Page 69 Test Series.