The Skull and the Nightingale
Blue Door, hardcover, £16.99
496 pages, 978-0007476312
Promenade with me through Michael Irwin’s dark and lubricious Rake’s Progress, The Skull and the Nightingale: near Charing Cross a street performer fills his vast belly with a gallon of water, supplements this by swallowing five frogs live and then regurgitates the lot into the street, to rapturous applause and guineas from the crowd; a gypsy predicts the imminent death of a companion; at the Seven Stars inn a crowd of bawdy bucks carouse and gamble over how many glasses they can stack before they and shatter over the floor; the same company then forms an inebriated procession until they are put to work in a coordinated effort to push down a wall. We are in eighteenth-century London. Little, to this province-dwelling reviewer’s eye, can be said to have changed. Though it may be less common to find its denizens pissing out of first floor windows into the street – but, as a supporting character in this novel says, “if a man has to piss, then piss he must”.
Naturally, there are many biological urges man must submit to and this conflict “between the intellectual and the animal self” is the main theme of both the book and the experiment embarked upon by its protagonist, Richard Fenwick, and his godfather, Mr Gilbert. Orphaned at a young age, Fenwick has been taken as a ward by Gilbert and provided for under the aegis of his vast wealth. Freshly returned to London from the Grand Tour, Fenwick and his godfather engage in an experiment wherein the former will be provided for and able to live as a gentleman, and the latter (“deficient in animal desires”) will experience “matter physical, emotional and intellectual” through letters from his ward, read from afar in the comfort of his estate and personal fiefdom.
Fenwick is at first, as any young man would surely be, delighted to engage in the pursuit of pleasure at Gilbert’s expense; he is “free to roam the foulest streets and drink with porter and pedlar”. Unfortunately, he does not appreciate the pruriency of his godfather’s inquiries before realising the extent of Gilbert’s hold over him: the wages of sin are earned by making his social life his profession until the pleasure yields only “dissatisfaction in the mind”. He cannot pursue his childhood sweetheart, Sarah (now inconveniently married), for fear of producing unsatisfactory reports, nor can he treat the actress, Kitty, with whom he forms a casual relationship, with the affection she deserves.
Such quandaries, however, allow Irwin to make efficient use of the epistolary aspect of his novel: whilst Fenwick can describe an incident to us in the first person narrative, he can then relay or distort his experiences as might best please his benefactor, or else fill them with diversionary matter. The largest of these diversions takes the form of Mr Thomas Crocker, a wealthy young landowner whose wit is exceeded only by his girth – all thirty stone of it. Crocker is a melancholy but philosophical character and is himself pursuing diversion: “From monotony. From cows and sheep. From thought. From myself.” Crocker expects to die, like his similarly corpulent father, at a young age and thus seeks out exotic pursuits and company as a release from the prison of his form. After orchestrating the aforementioned wall demolition – his own, as it transpires – he subsequently organises an extravagantly debauched masquerade, the setting for the decline of Fenwick’s fortunes.
A prior masquerade is no less debauched but results in fewer sorrows, with the masquerade initially standing for liberty – people being free beneath their costumes to “accost, jeer, jostle or clutch” as they please and satisfy their every whim in the elegance of Vauxhall pleasure garden. As the grand cham of letters, Dr Johnson, famously observed: “When a man is tired of London he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford.” But in this novel London is, as Peter Ackroyd might say, a brutalising city, the inhabitants of which are drawn back to it by a chain, formed of “habit … and sloth and money and timidity” as Mr Crocker ruefully observes.
The author, Professor Irwin, is an academic of eighteenth-century literature but he does not make the scholar’s mistake of showering facts down upon the reader, rather the experience of The Skull and the Nightingale is like slipping into a warm bath of erudition: his portrayal of London is rich and credible. Any person with an etymological interest reading a period novel will scour the text in search of linguistic anachronisms. I am such a person and, with some little disappointment, found none to pounce upon in Professor Irwin’s book. (However, one should have perhaps preferred the language to be slightly bawdier: I recall only one ‘fuck’.)
The novel ends with a refreshing lack of redemption: after the pantomime of the masquerades, Fenwick discovers that the true masks he and his godfather wear are not so different:
“My energies are fed by the excitements of the town. Perhaps I always was, or have become irredeemably self-concerned, incapable of selfless love. Perhaps, after all, you and I are two of a kind.”
Not then, a man tired of life.