The Fatal Tree by Jake Arnott

Reviewed by Annabel

Jake Arnott’s novels are moving back in time. He started in the 1960s and 1970s with his Long Firm trilogy, then he moved back to WWII followed by the early years of the twentieth century. Now in his 7th book, we jump further back in time into the 18th century.

Whenever the setting though, you know with one of Arnott’s books that he will get the detail exactly right, evoking each era perfectly, and this is the case with The Fatal Tree. This is the time of John Gay’s Beggar’s Opera and Gay appears in cameo, along with Jonathan Swift, Daniel Defoe and Alexander Pope, but we are not directly concerned with Gay’s tale of the man who was later known as Mack the Knife, (more of him later though).

The main narrative of The Fatal Tree follows the life of Elizabeth Lyon, aka ‘Edgworth Bess’. She, along with many other characters in this novel, lived during these turbulent times. Bess comes to London to seek her fortune – and is no sooner arrived than she meets Punk Alice and the new thief-taker, Jonathan Wild (another historic character).

He stood up and scanned me once more with his steely glare and I felt some quality of his power. His pale blue eyes bestowed a share of the attention he held in the room, and as all looked upon me I was charmed. I knew at once that this was a man who knew how to rule others.

‘Welcome to Romeville,’ he said, with a smile. ‘We’ll meet again soon.’

Punk Alice introduces her to Mother Breedlove and Bess is inducted into the career of being a prostitute. Her destiny is not to become a used-up old ‘trull’ though, through falling in love with Jack Sheppard who will become ‘Romeville’s’ most notorious thief and four-time prison-escaper. Thus, Bess really piques the attention of the crooked chief thief-taker Wild. Sheppard and Wild will be the bane of her life right to the end.

As Sheppard’s woman, Bess is able to become powerful – and she’s not always likeable with it. She ends up in jail, not for the first time, but this time she is in the condemned cell at Newgate. It is there she confesses her story to a young man called Billy Archer, a journalist – a ‘Grub Street hack’ who will publish it. Billy aspires to become a poet, and enjoys hanging out with Gay and his friends:

The standing man smiled at me. ‘Mr Gay has an indolent fondness for labour. I do believe that he loves work so much that he could watch it all day.’
‘You forget, Swift, that I was an apprentice once myself,’ returned Gay.
‘We do not forget,’ Pope interjected, ‘but perhaps you should.’
‘Would that I could.’ He sighed. ‘Now, give the boy a pinch of snuff. He’s earned it.’

The masters of satire enjoy their badinage, usually sharpening their wits on each other, but Gay befriends Billy.

The other star of this story is London a.k.a. ‘Romeville’, a much smaller city in those times …

Westward lay the Hundreds, the Square of Venus, the maze of Seven Dials. South sat the great dome of St Paul’s gospel-shop and Blackfriars, where the black Fleet flows into the silver Thames. By the east, the Tower, the Minories and the wasteland of Moorfields. From the other rose the dark hill of High-gate and Daisyville beyond.

By the time this novel starts in 1726, the South Sea Bubble had burst, but its effects on business lived on. Arnott’s London is also a morally corrupt city – there are few characters within these pages who don’t dice with the law in one form or another.

Bess’s lover Jack Sheppard was a folk hero and said to be the inspiration for Gay’s Macheath, and surely Edgworth Bess must have influenced Defoe’s Moll Flanders. Arnott’s impeccably researched tale, while not a pure fictional biography, arguably exposes the real life of the period as being just as colourful as the novels and entertainments written about it!

Arnott uses a lot of the thieves’ cant – their ‘flash’ dialect. Luckily, he provides a glossary, and in the early sections, I did have to look quite a few words up. However, I soon got the hang of it. After the acknowledgements, Arnott also provides a selected bibliography.

If I had one quibble with the novel, it’s that it was slightly overwhelming: too Hogarthian, too much atmosphere, too much thieves’ cant (their ‘flash’ dialect), too much lightning (gin), too many double-dealers, too much corruption, even too many hangings!  At times, it made me long to escape to Daisyville, I mean the countryside, for a breather.

Annabel is one of the Shiny New Books Editors

Jake Arnott, The Fatal Tree (Sceptre, 2017). 978-1473637740, 352 pp., hardback.

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