|The Child Cephalina by Rebecca Lloyd
published by Tartarus Press
A mixed blessing, this novel having been published by the fine but small Tartarus Press, thus escaping a tortuous bone-breaking and reshaping it could have had to make it into a bestseller, titled suitably--Fingered, or Clutchers, or That Child Has Too Much Knowing, or something like Justifiable Obsession--as a creepy but sure-footed fly-on-the-wall ripper of a tale of infatuation, possession, love, jealousy, treachery, faithfulness, sacrifice, belief, and the power of the deeps--all with characters so easy to hate or want to be, their only ambiguities are those deliberate quirkinesses inserted in the right proportions.
Instead, The Child Cephalina, with an unsensational cover instead of one that could scream Lolita, is that most treacherous thing: the whole truth, as told by someone in it. Come to think of it, Lolita was, too, fat lot of respect its narrator earned for telling us like it is. Lolita has stirred up generations of rage and disgust--yet, it, like The Child Cephalina, could be titled, My Excuse. “It was love at first sight, at last sight, at ever and ever sight,” says Humbert Humbert, to society’s outrage (just as Lewis Carroll has come to recently) and increasingly open admiration amongst a predatory brotherhood that has no time for love, instead priding itself on its unappreciated existences and ability to strike back.
But to this account of events 100 years earlier than Humbert Humbert’s “Ladies and gentlemen of the jury . . .” with the self-described “fancy prose style”.
A Mr Robert Groves, a respectable writer, has the stolidness and sincerity of the Charles Pooter of Diary of a Nobody fame. Groves, however, is not aspirationally trying to be middle class. He has no interest in decorating, and indeed, is so slovenly, he has to be told by his help to put his pants on because he’s embarrassed the other servants. He lives in a part of London only a stroll from the great Natural History Museum, in a handsome house (owned by his brother) wherein, he tells us “Up until the day the child Cephalina came into our lives [in 1851], Mrs Tetty Brandling was a happy, sloppy woman who snuffled and wheezed her way through the day’s business with good grace.”
There is no more solid road of a read than a straightforward autobiography--though the substrate be euphemistically “damper than it should have been”, perhaps only a few clutching pebbles from falling into the Underworld itself.
Until I struck a bargain with Tetty, she had the two attic rooms . . . I had thought quite seriously from time to time about joining my brother and his family in Margate where the air is fresh, and had I gone there, I feel I would have been able to make progress with the small book of poetry I had been attempting to write for so long.
But while my work with the children of the streets was ongoing, I was not in a position to move from London to a quieter place. I had been interviewing them since 1848 for which they received a meal and sometimes a bath or some clothing--I recorded a great many aspects of their lives, and came to understand, and I say unashamedly, admire, the courage and ingenuity it takes to be a poor child in London Town.
Henry Mayhew’s voluminous 1851 London Labour and the London Poor did everything Mr Groves hoped his work would do. First of all, London Labour got published and Mayhew was paid for it. It also achieved instant acclaim, though some of the interviewees might have had a different attitude, since, on publication, they formed the Street Traders Protection Association against him.
The two men had some superficial similarities beyond their interests in the poor. At a young age, Mayhew actually left Britain to escape creditors. Later, after achieving success as a journalist and publisher, he escaped the way that the established do: through that time’s equivalent of Chapter 11. Robert Groves would never have done the former. He was both far too timid a character and hopelessly incompetent by his own admission. Unlike Mayhew, who had the gift of gab and wit, and collected other talented authors and artists as socks do, burrs, thus his cofounding of Punch, Robert Groves hadn’t the faintest whiff of wit or possibility of scoundrelism in him. That’s why, as with so many other respectable people of the middle and upper classes, a Tetty was worth her weight in debtors' prison. She not only cleaned and cooked but purchased the necessities, and also had to fend off the unpaid and make the excuses Mr Groves shielded himself from, with her.
And she had to do all this dressed so poorly, it caused her even more shame. And then she, a widow, had to present herself to her family back in the countryside as respectable, a predicament that causes its own predicaments.
Oh, Mr Groves. So kind, so sensitive, so generous, so clueless, so unaware of the repercussions of his good deeds, his saviour impulse--he’s a Victorian Nicholas Kristof. Sensitivities alone could be a massive enough take-away meal in this read, if not for that first clause in Groves’ first sentence.
As Groves’ practical friend says: The lives of girls, you know? How our society . . .?
And there lies the purpose of his cry of the heart to us, his unseen readers. The exploration of loves in this novel is accomplished with the utmost delicacy. No bone is crushed, though the finest earbone is uncovered and brushed free. And not just Groves’.
Beliefs also come into this tale in ways that Groves would be the last to want admitted in--especially since his brother, ever his financial crutch, is an ardent spiritualist who, in contrast to Groves’ barely eeking by, makes a good living writing spiritualist texts.
But his brother isn’t the man of action Groves proves himself to be. Groves isn’t interested in the spirit world, but the one living in the foul stink outdoors. He’s already saved one poor boy, but when the child Cephalina chooses him as her saviour, to the horror of Tetty Brandling, he is not only helpless; he learns he can be devious.
Like Kristof, he forays into a secretive world of a person he doesn’t really know, for a good cause--in his case, to save a child--who has asked him not to spy on her. There he meets the Dickensianly named Clutchers.
It’s not as if Groves doesn’t have good advice. Tetty doesn't mince words:
Something’s afoot, Robert. I can feel it, and this is not just fimble-famble. Perhaps it is that I am seized with the kind of faddy thoughts only a woman gets. Yet, I have always wondered why it is that men are not blessed with faddy thoughts for I know certain sure they could benefit greatly from such a blessing. But God in his glory sees fit to carve men more crudely than he does women . . . perhaps he does not care about them so much.
At this point, I should shut the curtains on any more reveals about the plot. This story does have elements of Dickens--the keen nuancing of wealth, class, and sensitivities. It has the fierceness of outrage, minus the melodrama, about “the unfortunates” that Dickens had, and that that most unappreciated and ignorantly lambasted novel Paul Clifford had, about which its author had high hopes as a social reformer in novel form, partly “to show that there is nothing essentially different between vulgar vice and fashionable vice”.
But those elements in The Child Cephalina could be backdrops to the main obsession. And as for what’s afoot--“a sordid thing”—this account, because it’s told throughout by a man without a sense of drama, is horror most exquisite.
The byline for The Child Cephalina is Rebecca Lloyd. There’s good reason to believe this is itself, a case of spiritual transportation.
If you like novels about people who can't be summed up--real people who could be laughed at, reviled, and loved for the same deeds (the only kind of fiction worth reading, imo)--I highly recommend The Child Cephalina. Lloyd is an expert at embedding herself, not only in history, but in characters as foibled and unaware of self as we all are.
My only reservation is one hardly likely to have company in this readership. I am such a die-hard sceptic that I haven't believed what I have seen and felt with my own eyes and hairs on my skin. But Tetty wouldn't have time for such silliness.