Sunday, April 14, 2013

A Day at the Races: D.J. Taylor's Derby Day: A Victorian Mystery

According to the writer of The Modern Sportsman: His Dress, Habits and Recreations - whom D.J. Taylor quotes at the beginning of his book - if there is a place which has a meadow and a rail for jumping than you will find the sporting men of England over there. With such a beginning and with a title such as Derby Day, one is not surprised that story is about a particular race on a particular day when the whole of England goes marching to Epsom Downs.

Or perhaps not the whole of England, if one believes Mr. Pritchett of the Pictorial Times, who is there to cover the event and who rues to his assisstant that ' the crowds are nothing like what they used to be. It is that d_d electric telegraph. Folk can find out the result now without leaving their parlours. Why, I remember taking two hours to walk a mile once, and there were people who never got there at all. It is very different now... (351)

In fact, the voice of Mr. Prichett as he issues commands to his hapless assistant or passes on delicious gossipy tidbits is what I enjoyed most in the novel. Also enjoyable are the quotes from other texts that form the epigraph of each chapter. Sample this which is from A New Etiquette: Mrs Carmody's Book of Genteel Behaviour (1861):

The gentleman who brings an acknowledgement of his preference to a young lady's father must not be surprised if he is received with no great cordiality. Inadequate birth, dress, demeanour, income - all these things may prejudice the opinion of a paterfamilias, vigilant upon his hearth-rug, in away that would be very disquieting should the precise dimensions of the gentleman's falling short ever be publicly conveyed. What is needed on these occasions is good nature, persistence and pertinacity, and the constant recollection that faint heart ne'er won fair lady... (25)

A black race-horse Tiberius is widely supposed to win the race that particular year. However, Tiberius' owner, Mr. Davenant has fallen on bad days. Enter Mr. Happerton a young man on the rise who does not mind using underhand methods to rise to the top. Using the disreputable Captain Raff, he manages to get hold of many notes that Davenant has given to his creditors with the result that he manages to procure both Davenant's estate and Tiberius. Everybody assumes, at first, that Happerton has bought Tiberius because he wants his own horse to win but later doubts surface. Perhaps Happerton doesn't want Tiberius to win and has secretly betted on other horses.

Meanwhile he has also made a good match by marrying Rebecca Gresham, the daughter of an old respectable lawyer, Mr. Gresham. This has opened doors for him in a society that would have denied him entry otherwise. With his schemes succeeding and his fortune flying, Happerton seems all set for a flourishing political career. But has he met his match in Rebecca?

The novel is an interesting look at a society in flux in which the old gentry is fading away at the onslaught of an upwardly mobile class. It is always difficult to capture another age but the novel does do so in an adequate manner though the praise lavished on it does seem a little extravagant.


First Line: Sky the colour of a fish's underside; grey smoke diffusing over a thousand house-fronts; a wind moving in from the east: London.

Title: Derby Day: A Victorian Mystery

Author: D.J. Taylor

Publication Details: London: Vintage, 2011.

Pages: 405

Other Books read of the same author: None

Trivia: Longlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2011.


The book can be bought on the Net. I borrowed it from CRL [0111, 3N601, DD Q1]


Submitted for the following challenges: 52 Books in 52 Weeks, 2013 Mystery/ Crime, British Books, Historical Fiction, Let Me count the Ways, New Authors.


  1. Neer - I always learn a lot from books that portray life in a particular era like that, especially books in which we see how society is changing. Even if it is a bit over-hyped, this one sounds like a good read and I'm glad you enjoyed it.

    1. It was an okay read Margot. I liked some elements of it but I don't think I can read the book again.