No one emulates Charles Dickens anymore. We modern readers like our novels fast-paced and snappy. Well, Mark Dunn has bucked that trend with a novel called Under the Harrow that takes Dickens as its literary inspiration.
Imagine a valley, completely isolated from the outside world, whose inhabitants have based their society upon the only books available to them: the Bible, the Encyclopedia Britannica (9th ed., 1897), and the complete works of Charles Dickens. They name their valley Dingly Dale and live a hybrid neo-Victorian lifestyle, complete with social inequality, petty crime, and lots of tea-cakes.
The people who do business with the Dinglians tell them nothing about the outside world and refuse to give them books, newspapers, or any other source of information. Then eleven-year-old Newton Trimmers accidentally uncovers a conspiracy that may destroy the Dale and everyone in it.
Under the Harrow is written in the style of Dickens:
As was her habit, Mrs. Gargery opened her front door each morning and put herself into a decaying rush-bottomed chair that had been permanently emplanted upon her porch. There she would sit, holding her pug-dog in her lap and making his little paws to wave and salute at passersby when not sharing with her snub-nosed pet a rasher of bacon, the canine nibbling from one end and the ancient hominian nibbling from the opposite end and the two coming together into something resembling a kiss, which was either droll or revolting depending upon one’s opinion of pugs.
In this leisurely manner, the narrator, Frederick Trimmers (uncle to Newton) investigates the mysteries of Dingly Dale. How did the unnatural isolation of the valley come to be? Who enforces it? What really happens to those who try to leave? Are there people within Dingly Dale who know more than they are telling?
At first, I will confess, I found this book a little slow. But once I adjusted myself to its unhurried pace I found it very enjoyable. (I have to do the same with Dickens and other Victorian authors, too.) I became quite engaged by the curious plight of the Dale and its inhabitants.
Under the Harrow is not like anything else you’ve read: a Victorian suspense novel, rife with political corruption, greed, and class conflict, set in the modern day. (Sort of.) If you don’t mind waiting a little for its secrets to unfold, give it a try; I liked it.