Kept by D. J. Taylor. It begins with two excerpts from newspapers concerning the death of two men, the first dated 1863, and the second, 1866. The novel then retreats to a time before the deaths. The language and syntax are very Dickens with long, involved sentences and slightly archaic words. Taylor doesn't let you slip quickly into the narrative, but presents little episodes that have no immediate bearing on the story because you don't yet have enough information. The clues are there, but you can't yet recognize them; only later will you return to certain passages and nod.
In addition to the Dickensian style, there are loads of allusions to historical personages such as George Eliot, Maria Edgeworth, Elizabeth Gaskell, and George Gissing.
I loved this sentence, "The two bouncing daughters have retired to their boudoir, the elder to ponder a volume of the Reverend Rantaway's brimstone sermons, and the younger to read one of Miss Edgeworth's novels."
Maria Edgeworth wrote parodies of gothic novels that were very popular (although many did not recognize them as satire), which often contained a message on the plight of women at the time, so Taylor manages in one short sentence to illustrate the great differences between the sisters. Edgeworth was also an essayist, and I adore "An Essay on the Noble Science of Self-Justification," which makes me laugh each time I read it--such perfectly tongue-in-cheek satire!
Early on there is an excerpt from George Eliot's Journal (March 1862) in which some of the characters are mentioned. This, of course, adds to the verisimilitude of the story.
At this point, I began some research -- did the any of the characters (aside from the literary names easily recognized) actually exist? Indeed, some of the characters are based on real individuals of the same name. Dunbar, for example: there were two brothers, Lewis & William, who were largely responsible for the extermination of the Highland ospreys by stealing the eggs for naturalists of the time.
While the main characters appear to be fiction (I could find none of them when Googling for information), many of the minor characters did exist. At some point, I noticed a footnote that referred to the Appendix and discovered easy access to a great deal of historical detail.
Here is a sentence I liked: "There was a little tuft of grey hair on the point of his chin, which, whether left there by chance or design, enhanced this singularity, and Dewar became instantly fascinated by it, watched it as its owner rose to his feet (he did this cautiously but in a manner that suggested much steadfastness of purpose) and marked it as it moved up and down in response to the opening and closing of his lips."
The story doesn't really begin to take shape until Esther appears. Esther is the housemaid to James Dixey, and her observations of the house and its inhabitants begin the first cohesive portion of the story by making connections to what has been previously unassociated. She is the first character to be developed, to have the human touch. From this point, things become much more exciting.
New characters are introduced in semi-isolation, but by now we have enough information to continue recognizing relationships and to connect what appear to be unimportant to details to what has gone before.
Echoes of Jane Eyre appear, a mad woman "in the attic," an excerpt from "Mr. Thackeray's Tour," and, finally, I'm to Isabel's portion!
Another funny quote; this one is from "Thackeray's Journal":
And so at length to Watton, a wide old marketplace with ostlers attending to their beasts at the rails and the George inn, with its fragrant beds and the liveliest parlourmaid I ever saw, and an imperious old housekeeper to whom I would only say, "Madam, my chop would have been sweeter still had the serving girl's thumbprint not stared up at me from the plate."
--W. M. Thackeray
"A LITTLE TOUR THROUGH THE COUNTIES OF EAST ANGLIA,"
Cornhill Magazine, 1862
This novel is slyly funny and fun, fun, fun!