The King of the Book
The Thrilling Victorian Adventures of the Most Dangerous Woman in Europe
by Brenda Clough
Marian Halcombe Camlet’s son has run away from his boarding school, and Queen Victoria’s jewels are stolen.
Marian Halcombe Camlet has just given birth to her first son, so it’s not a good time for crisis. But her older stepson has run away from his abusive boarding school. And a fortune in diamonds and pearls, destined for Queen Victoria, has been stolen through the Camlet publication offices. Juggling maternity and parenting within the strict confines of Victorian womanhood, Marian attacks with all her customary vehemence.
PRAISE FOR MARIAN HALCOMBE:
It’s a sequel to The Woman In White – but it’s so much more than that. This is a bodice-ripping yarn, a Victorian melodrama with a modern sensibility, a delightful romp, a thriller and a romance and a comedy of manners all at once. I adored it. – Chaz Brenchley
Brenda Clough’s invincible and endearing Marian Halcombe Camlet easily enters the company of Jane Marple, Miss Maud Silver, Pamela North, and Prudence Ford as a British female sleuth in the mid-1800s. The Marian novels are an absolute joy to read. – Paul S. Piper
A ripping yarn! Thrilling, lushly Victorian, with a dashing heroine who is not even handsome, yet she bags a delightful husband – not without considerable heroic effort and derring-do – and upholds the finest traditions of pure womanhood! (Well… kinda.) – Jennifer Stevenson
Read a sample:
From the journal of Micah Brickley Camlet, age 11 yrs.
DO NOT READ!
DEATH TO TRESPASSERS!
25 August 1861
My dearest son,
Just a note to inform you that Miss Marian has been safely delivered. You now have a younger half-brother! He is to be christened William Walter Halcombe Camlet. As you may imagine we are all most joyful here. Miss Marian is blooming and sends you her best love.
I hope your first week at boarding school goes well, and that you are learning your way about St. Botolph’s. I enclose a note from Lottie (in code! How clever of the two of you – I am utterly thwarted and baffled!) and a plum cake. Do not eat it all at once, I beg!
Believe me always,
I paste in this note which I have just received from my father Mr. Theophilus Camlet. I am now in the plainest and most mortal danger. Just like David Copperfield (I have finished his story just this day, having sat up all night reading) I have been supplanted by a son by my parent’s new wife! I daresay Papa will die any day. I had intended to share this cake out among my mates, but I dare not put Jervey, Culford and Porch into danger. It’s probably poisoned. At great sacrifice I ate it all myself, and am now desperately ill. In spite of this had to spend an hour cleaning Mulready Major’s boots. I expect to die shortly. When this is found among my effects, please give this journal to my sister, Miss Charlotte V. Camlet, at Sandett House in Hampstead, north of London. She surely shares my peril!
Things I hate about school no. 14: Sharing a bed with Culford. I have had my own bed since I was born. He hogs all the covers, and smells bad.
Began Oliver Twist. Could it be that the cake was not poisoned after all? Mrs. B gave me a horrid dose of bitters, which she brews herself out of poisonous herbs and berries, eye of newt optional, when the moon is on the wane. I’m almost sorry to report it set me right up. Because I did not share, Culford and Jervey took me out behind the coal shed and pounded me. I now have a bloody nose and a black eye. Matron said boys will be boys. I showed her the tooth which is still loose from last week, but she says it’s a milk tooth and will fall out sometime anyway.
Here is the note from Lottie, which I have now decoded:
What? They let you read novels at boarding school? Of course I won’t rat to Papa! How has he led us to believe that children may not read fiction published after 1800? We are condemned to peruse Macaulay’s History of England! Tell me all about David Copperfield, instantly!
Thank goodness we agreed to communicate in our private code. It’s better for my sister to discover now, early in life, that the best of men may be deluded and that even my father (whose intelligence is otherwise very tolerable) may be blinded by affection and led astray.
Things I hate about school no.15: There was a layer of grease on the tea today. Soap was not used when washing the crockery. Drank it anyway.
Mr. Holly, the mathematics master, says that if I do not apply myself he shall cane me. The daily flogging that Old Buggerhum administers to each of us in turn after supper is to set a high tone of moral and gentlemanlike feeling, and has no effect upon my learning square roots.
Mr. Byland, the history master, teaches us nothing. Today he read to us from the newspaper accounts of a civil war in the United States. It is a major conflagration, not to be missed. The instant I am released from this Hole I shall cross the sea and enlist in the Union Army. Fighting slave holders cannot be worse than St. Botolph’s. And a British public-school man will be a distinct asset, surely welcomed among the colonial ranks. Perhaps they will let me man a cannon! In the meantime I have finished Oliver Twist and begun reading Nicholas Nickleby.
Things I hate about school no. 16: Boys have but one change of linen a fortnight. We all are afflicted with fleas, which infest the mattresses so that they may never be eradicated.
Walter Hartright’s narrative
It is ever the case that beginnings are hard. The bye-election of 1860 sent me to Parliament as a new member. It was an enormous triumph, and a humbling one. I was determined to do my duty and be a credit to my constituents and my family. But with neither a university education, business experience nor high connections I was out of my depth. Nine years ago I made the leap from impecunious drawing master to propertied landowner. Now I had to learn the levers of governance and law, an even greater ascent.
As one of the newest members I held myself lowly, accepting assignments to the less desirable committees. I had hoped to work with Lord Shaftesbury and fight to keep the sane from being unjustly imprisoned in asylums. Instead I was allotted to that most depressing and futile of tasks, the Immoral Acts and Contagious Diseases Subcommittee. The larger committee’s brief was somehow to deal with the rising tide of prostitution and its attendant disease in Britain, which has a deleterious effect on military readiness. A comprehensive Contagious Diseases Act was our ultimate goal but was at that period years away.
The subcommittee hearings were an endless treadmill of depressing witnesses about the seamiest sides of modern life. Day after day I listened to pathetic broken women testifying of their abuse at the hands of pimps, or of the brisk trade in women, essentially slaves, to Brussels to be funnelled into the stews of Europe. Or grand doctors in black frock coats told us far more than one wanted to know about tertiary syphilis and its effect upon military readiness.
Every evening I returned to my mother and sister’s cottage in Hampstead feeling grubbier than the lowest bone-picker. Members of Parliament are the governmental equivalent of chimney sweeps or sewer flushers, delegated to labour in fetid darkness at endless tasks which the rest of society simply will not tolerate.
Even when the House rose in early August I was not free. Everyone who is anyone leaves London at this season, to estates, country homes, their hunting and grouse shooting. Much though I yearned to, I could not return to Limmeridge. Marian was in her ninth month, and my dear wife Laura would no more miss her sister’s confinement than she would her wedding.
When our chairman Lord Leonidas Sulpice learned I was staying in town, he handed me a folder. “Possible witness for next session,” he grunted, tersely. He was of exalted rank, only marking time in the Commons until his father the Marquess should die and he could take his seat in the House of Lords. Tall, barrel-shaped, and completely bald on top, he had side whiskers and long central chin beard, as if all the thick grey hair had slowly slid down either side of his head to drip off the tip of his chin. He never spoke to a subcommittee member if he could help it. “Right in your neighbourhood.”
“It shall be done, my lord.”
Lord Sulpice’s glance was fleeting and entirely cold, like the flick of a knife. But at least he was looking at me. “You have a name, Mr. Hartright, for being able to find hidden things. We could use that gift in our work. I particularly want this Miss Fanette Portree next session. She’s been winkling out abusers of young girls – an unsuitable job for a female. She bills herself as a crusader, but I suspect her of being a moll buzzer.”
After this House session I knew the term: a female criminal who preyed upon other women. I passed over this reference to my reputation. I do not boast of how I saved Laura from villains who stole her very name and identity. “Surely we have testimony enough for action, my lord. What more proof can we look for, of the urgent need for legislation?”
“I shall discuss it with Mr. Whitbread.” This was the chairman of the Select Committee, an exalted personage indeed, and I immediately subsided. “Find this elusive female for us, Mr. Hartright. Something ramshackle going on there, and I want it unravelled and dragged into the light of day.” A consummate politician, Lord Sulpice made no overt promises. But his unspoken implication was clear. He was giving me a chance for greater things.
Still the need to wash the taste out of my mouth was overwhelming. My sons Wally and Fairlie were nine and four years old respectively, an ideal age for a seaside jaunt, and Laura herself was in the family way. A short holiday was just what she needed, before all her attention was taken up by Marian’s confinement. We spent the fortnight at Whitley Bay, walking on the esplanade, riding donkeys, digging in the sand, and paddling in the shallow surf on the broad curve of beach with St. Mary’s lighthouse a white exclamation point on the horizon.
My sons burned brown as berries, and Laura’s fair hair was gilded with gold. Replete with sunshine and whelks, I felt almost completely restored to myself when we returned to London towards the end of August. Marian was due in September, and all the Camlet children needed their Aunt Laura’s help. Micah had to be packed up and dispatched to his first term at boarding school, his sister Lottie was returning to the local day school, and the littlest daughter Celeste, always called Lester, had to be read to and pampered so that she should not feel neglected.
Camlet planned to go with Micah and see his son well settled at St. Botolph’s. But on that very morning Marian went into labour, three weeks early. Micah had to take the train by himself to school while the entire household fell into the vortex of childbirth. My mother and my wife closeted themselves upstairs with Marian, and my younger sister Sarah took the girls along with my boys out for a picnic on Hampstead Heath.
My allotted duty was Camlet himself. Husband and wife are enviably happy together, almost too intimate, but these moments were when the bill came due. Before he could become consumed with worry I haled Camlet off to the village tavern. Descended from a long line of nonconformists, he was of an abstemious habit. Two tankards of strong brew ensured a sound slumber on the chesterfield sofa in the morning room. And in the morning we were greeted with the joyous news of his son’s birth.