David Robinson reviews The Blood by ES Thomson – the latest Jem Flockhart crime novel – and asks: what do we read historical fiction for?

As far as I know, Elaine Thomson’s Jem Flockhart is the only 1840s apothecary detective in crime fiction. But that is the least important thing about her. Here’s the most:

“I had never worn stays, or petticoats. I had never sat in silence while men talked, had never modified my words or behaviour so as to guard against showing any man up as a fool or to preserve his self-worth. I walked the streets without fear of having my virtue threatened, I went wherever I wished, and I might smoke or spit as I pleased.”

Spitting apart, in other words, she is a modern everywoman. Except she’s not, because the first two books in the series have also shown quite convincingly how completely she is immersed in her own world of 1840s medicine. Two years ago, in Beloved Poison, Thomson showed her at work in London’s crumbling St Saviour’s hospital, which was about to be demolished to make way for a railway line.  Last year’s Dark Asylum had Jem investigating a particularly gruesome murder at Angel Meadow insane asylum, where her father was a patient.  In both, the period detail is present and awesomely correct, just as it is in the latest book in the series, The Blood, which is set on a seamen’s floating hospital, the Golden Fleece.  (It is typical of Thomson’s microscopic attention to detail that this is only ever known as “The Blood” as Cockney rhyming slang reduces the ship’s name to “The Blood and Fleas”.)

The settings might change, but Jem is able to move between them easily first of all because she is an apothecary and secondly because she is, as far as everyone else is concerned, a man. After her male twin died at birth along with her mother, her father passed off Jemima as his son Jeremiah and raised her as a boy.  Disguised as a man, she remains an anomaly: a woman in the then all-male world of medicine.

The Victorians were not, of course, known for their ready acceptance of gender fluidity, and every day of her life a real-life Jemima would presumably have feared being exposed as a woman and so would not put herself in any situation (going to a brothel with male colleagues, for example, or having any dealings with the law) where this might be a risk. A real-life Jemima would, you can’t help thinking, make just about the worst kind of Victorian investigator imaginable.

Thomson, however, stands by her woman. Shrewdly, she gives Jem a port-wine birthmark over her eyes.  No-one is going to look too closely at her: she is, in her own words, “born for disguise”.

Why does Thomson go so far in particularising her protagonist? She could, of course, claim that the real-life example of Victorian military surgeon James Miranda Barry (who was revealed to have been a woman after he died in 1865) showed that such levels of lifelong concealment were indeed possible. Still the question has to be asked: isn’t Jem too much of a problematic problem-solver for her own good?

But this, in turn, throws up an even bigger question: what do we read historical fiction for?  When we follow Jem on board the floating hospital, investigating a trail of sudden deaths, what kind of authorial voice do we want in our heads? Is it one that takes us by the hand and shows us the streets of London as they were when brothels were the city’s biggest business, and medical science was in its infancy and which shines a spotlight on Victorian attitudes that are anathema to our own?  Or do we prefer a story that takes all that for granted and is told without a 21st-century spotlight operator in sight?

When I first met Thomson, she was still writing as Elaine di Rollo (her former husband’s name). I was impressed by the verve with which her first two novels, The Peachgrowers’ Almanac (2008) and Bleakly Hall (2011) swung between light comedy and the horrors of history, and surprised that her job – lecturer in marketing at Napier – was only tangentially linked to history.

Yet history clearly fascinates her, and she always seems to have been good at explaining it. “At my PhD exam, they said mine was one of the only theses they’d ever read that was actually a bit of a page-turner,” she told me. Its subject was the Edinburgh Women’s Hospital, and some of the things she came across in her researches – such as the use of sexual surgery to correct “odd” behaviour among women (which might amount to little more than not being deferential enough towards men) – have subsequently reappeared in her fiction. Women doctors battling against the male establishment, patients struggling against poverty and domestic violence: these are also themes that emerge in her Jem Flockhart crime novels but which she first encountered while trying to imagine the lives distilled into neat copperplate writing in the archives beneath Edinburgh City Chambers.

You could, therefore, argue that the feminist slant in Thomson’s Jem Flockhart novels is a necessary corrective to the image of Victorian Britain the Victorians left behind themselves. “The corpses of men find their way into the river by accident,” Jem’s father tells her. “Women’s arrive there by design.”  Just so: and the silence behind that is surely worth looking at.

Similarly with sex. In Alan Hollinghurst’s The Swimming Pool Library, there is a scene in which his promiscuous protagonist William Beckwith is leafing through the diaries of the octogenarian peer who has asked him to write his biography. “I’m always forgetting,” he notes, “how sexy the past must have been.” Exactly:  and again, that’s something else historians can never quite get to grips with and about which the archives are usually silent.

Fortunately, historical fiction doesn’t have to be equally dumb. And that’s why even though a real-life Jem Flockhart mightn’t have been have been such an effective mid-19th century crime-buster, a fictional one will do very nicely indeed.

The Blood by ES Thomson is published this month by Constable, price £14.99.

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