Book Review: The Fatal Tree by Jake Arnott

Book - The Fatal Tree by Jake ArnottI heard Jake Arnott reading from his novel, The Fatal Tree, at the Hay Festival, and was intrigued by his use of slang words – a historical dialect of thieves and villains, taken directly from the “flash world” of Romeville in 18th century London. The book centres on the true story of infamous jail-breaker Jack Sheppard and his companion, the notorious Edgworth Bess (aka Elizabeth Lyon), but it is not a straightforward telling. Arnott’s narrator (William Archer) is a young hack writer, who gains his material directly from Edgworth Bess herself, as she awaits trial at Newgate Gaol.   

The novel begins with the tale of Edgworth Bess, recalling her own naïve introduction to London’s underworld – a place full of jades, prigs, punks and mollies. It takes time to get used to the slang, but eventually you learn the meaning of words such as “darkmans”, “bene”, “tout” and “phiz”, as you become immersed in the story (and there is a glossary, if you need it).

In fact, the tale was sensationalised at the time by Daniel Defoe, portraying Bess as a “wicked, deceitful and lascivious wretch”. Arnott’s novel attempts to redress this bias somewhat, but I must admit that I didn’t enjoy reading about her – she has some redeeming features, but her blasé attitude and strategic manipulation of others means that she is not a particularly likeable character. Her naïve yet welcoming embrace of a life of crime seems unlikely – she appears to enjoy her ‘trade’ in Mother Breedlove‘s “vaulting school” from the beginning, with not even a hint of regret, seeming to relish her own fall from grace.

It wasn’t until the mysterious ‘author’ (William Archer) began to reveal his own tale, that I started to really get into this book. Archer is a more complex character – a youngster originating from the Workhouse, he is initially apprenticed to the trade of a printer, and falls accidentally into the criminal world, yet he is always keen to use his writing skills for more noble purposes.

It was only half-way through the book that I began to enjoy reading it, and I very nearly gave up. The plot becomes more interesting at this stage, as we begin to see events through the eyes of both Bess and William. Bess’s life is endangered through her association with her lover Jack Sheppard, an addict of crime, who becomes adept at getting “snabbled” by the authorities and then escaping again, whilst also making an enemy of Jonathan Wild, the chief “prig-napper” or “Thief-taker General”.

The most fascinating aspect of this book for me was the narrative surrounding the three “masters of satire” – John Gay, Alexander Pope and Jonathan Swift. There was a new trend for satire and intrigue at this time, as numerous pamphlets containing narratives of debauchery and corruption were produced both cheaply and quickly. It is just such a pamphlet that William Archer is attempting to write – the true story of Edgworth Bess.

Here’s a description of Newgate Gaol from Bess herself:

“From outside it looks bene enough, like a gatehouse of some rum palace with columns and statues of dimber morts bearing carved names like Mercy and Truth and suchlike… These handsome decorations span the old city gate like some triumphal arch, but in truth it is a mouth of hell. And once inside, the filth and noise of the place hits you right in the phiz, as does its ghastly stink.”

This is a book which delves into a time and place long gone, with a fascinating language that is particular to its own period and location. It would be far more interesting if the story got going at an earlier stage, and I felt that there was an absence of emotion and depth to the main character, but it is a curious read, especially from a historical perspective.

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