Prowling the wonderful Carnegie library in oakland, I stumbled across Eleanor Updale's Montmorency series .
Since the books seemed to combine two of my favorite things - children's books and Victoriana - I figured I should give them a try.
I've read the first three - Montmorency, Montmorency on the Rocks and Montmorency and the Assassins now, and I have to admit I am not sure how to feel. Updale is a better storyteller than she is writer, but even her storytelling is a bit rocky. The Montmorency books are peculiar in that they are children's books with no major young characters. This is not a flaw, incidentally.
The first book is fairly straightforward - Montmorency is a released thief who uses knowledge of the newly-constructed london sewers to steal a fortune, then give up a life of crime for a life of high society living. Along the way he is caught up in schemes, plots and international affairs with some prominent and titled friends. He develops a love of opera and amazing acting and impersonation skills; he is especially noted for his ability to transform himself from a gentleman to a poor man.
Then it gets weird (SPOILERS). In Montmorency on the Rocks, Our Hero has acquired an opium habit, and much of the book is spent trying to kick the habit. weird enough, but we also get Vi Evans as a more central character. Vi is the daughter of Montmorency's old slum landlady, and, like the landlady herself, quite clearly a prostitute. Why three gentlemen, one a lord, would be seen freely in public with a prostitute is a bit unclear (and strikes me as unlikely). But the real stumper comes in the last page or two of the book, when Vi announces that she's pregnant. perhaps needless to say, she is unmarried. This is scandalous for the 1880s, though not uncommon.
Book Three jumps us ahead about 13 years, which is also strange. Vi's son is 12 or so, and does not know who his father is. But all three central male characters (Montmorency, Lord George Fox-Selwyn and Doctor Farcett) believes himself to be the father. This means old Vi's been going at it with all three, which is rather racy in a book shelved in the children's room. More importantly to me, liaisons between Vi and any of the men were not hinted at in the slightest in the preceeding book. This is shoddy storytelling.
I also object to Updale's free hand with historical accuracy. For sure, she has a good grip on some aspects - the installation of the London sewers, various historical and political events, but the dialogue and, more significantly, relationships between characters seem wholly anachronistic. Everything to do with Vi Evans, even her name (which is Violet - the men call her Vi from the beginning, which is simply poor manners, even with a prostitute - she should be called Miss Evans) - reeks of the twentieth century.
The writing is tiresome at times; Updale is not a master of her craft. But I've found myself wanting to know what will happen next (and I see at amazon that the fourth book has already been published), and so I suppose I'll see this series through. I'm curious about reception by a child audience; the vaguely Sherlock Holmes/Victorian quality of the books could be equally repelling and attractive. The content - the opium addiction, this peculiar Vi, the political intrigue, which comes off as a stuffy, conservative Rule Britannia nationalism - may or may not be engaging for a kid, although that is always a secondary concern for me.
It's a shame, because in a lot of ways the original premise of the first book had a lot of potential. In more skillful hands, it could have been quite an astonishing series.