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Laura Shepherd-Robinson on her Favourite Novels Set in the 18th Century

Posted on 16th January 2020 by Mark Skinner

The Waterstones Thriller of the Month for January, Blood and Sugar, is a pulsating thriller richly evocative of the sights, sounds and smells of 18th century London. The period is one close to its author, Laura Shepherd-Robinson's heart and she has compiled this exclusive list of her favourite novels set in the 1700s.

The 18th century has long fascinated me, both as a reader and a writer. It possesses all the necessary ingredients for compelling fiction: aristocratic fortunes coexisting with grinding poverty and prostitution; politeness and etiquette concealing sexual transgression and scandal; intellectual curiosity and artistic endeavour, but also murder, hangings, riots, blood sports and gin; the horrors of slavery and colonial conquest, alongside a flowering of political idealism culminating in two very different revolutions in France and America.

My favourite 18th century novels are those that show us this world in all its colour, but also give us great stories of their time, with compelling characters and emotional heart. 

Dangerous Liaisons by Choderlos de Laclos

Written in 1782, in pre-revolutionary France, this classic novel immerses the reader in the world of the French aristocracy in the years before the guillotine fell. That this book has inspired so many film and theatre adaptations (including 1999’s Cruel Intentions, which I love) is a testament to its compelling characters and timeless themes: desire, revenge, love, and deceit. Written in epistolary form, an exchange of letters between the Marquis de Merteuil and her friend, the Vicomte de Valmont, the plot centres upon the schemes and machinations of these two delightfully depraved characters. The Marquis enlists the help of Valmont to seduce the young bride of an ex-lover, whilst she assists him in seducing the famously chaste Presidente de Tourvel, a highly religious woman. The writing is a treat, knowing and witty, and the characters, especially the women, are creatures of fascinating complexity and nuanced motive.

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The sole novel from the great polymath of late eighteenth-century France, Dangerous Liaisons has endured as a touchstone work of European literature, infamous for its heady cocktail of sexual intrigue and courtly scandal. Composed entirely of letters between its principle characters, Laclos’s masterpiece is an exquisitely structured and elegantly written marvel.
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Golden Hill by Francis Spufford

Set in 1746, in colonial New York, this book begins with the arrival in Manhattan of an Englishman, Mr Smith, who presents a bill of exchange for £1,000, an enormous sum, to a local trader, Mr Lovell. Smith’s origins and motives for being in New York are obscure, and rumours whirl around him, as he muddles his way into Manhattan society. The setting is quite beautifully depicted, New York a city of Dutch gables and steeples, with Smith, an outsider, a wonderful guide to its people, politics, and economy. Much of New York is glittering and new, and Smith’s time is spent engaged in coffeehouse banter, parlour flirtations and amateur theatrics. But Spufford doesn’t neglect the city’s dark heart: the rampages of the mob, the horrors of slavery, and the New Yorkers’ paranoia about the motives of their colonial masters across the water. Intelligent and funny, it is also, in places, very moving. 

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A flawlessly executed homage to the buccaneering fiction of Fielding and Sterne, Golden Hill presents an embryonic New York in the mid-eighteenth century, and a fast-moving plot of intrigue, adventure and last-gasp plot twists. Spufford’s prose rejoices in elegant pastiche as the story of a mysterious stranger and his unexplained fortune gathers pace.
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A Place of Greater Safety by Hilary Mantel

A depiction of Revolutionary France by one of the greatest writers of historical fiction, the novel follows the lives of three key revolutionary figures, Danton, Desmoulins and Robespierre. It glides from the grand political stage to the intimacies of the salon with effortless ease. A story about faction and feminism, belief and betrayal, it explores how this idealistic enterprise descended into political violence, and ultimately devoured its children. I read it around the same time as I read Simon Schama’s Citizens and they make wonderful companions. 900 pages long, but an incredibly fast-paced read, the book plunges you into the tinderbox that is revolutionary Paris. I began it on Christmas Eve 2013 and finished it on Boxing Day. It took me three days to recover from the emotional intensity.  

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Mantel's first completed manuscript is a colossal achievement, marshalling a huge cast of characters to give a rounded and evocative depiction of Revolutionary France and its principal players. From the flintily incorruptible Robespierre to the bullish, sensual Danton and the doomed, romantic Desmoulins, this is historical fiction played out on the grandest canvas.
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The Devil in the Marshalsea by Antonia Hodgson

Set in London in 1727, this crime novel beautifully recreates the world of the Marshalsea debtors prison. The book’s hero, Thomas Hawkins, is a wonderfully flawed parson’s son – a womaniser, brawler and gambler, who makes for a very entertaining narrator. The bawdy language and humour that crackles off the pages is a delight. Called upon by the authorities to investigate the murder of another inmate, Hawkins’ inquiry makes him enemies high and low. Amidst the twists and turns of the plot, the book never loses sight of the horror and cruelty of 18th century life for the destitute.

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A thoroughly immersive period crime novel that mines the squalor and desperation of the Marshalsea debtor’s prison, Hodgson’s evocative work features a highly unconventional sleuth and a compelling plot that mixes labyrinthine twists with nuanced social and historical comment. A sinister, atmospheric crime fiction treat.
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The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock by Imogen Hermes Gowar

Shortlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction, this debut novel is astonishingly well-written, immersing the reader so thoroughly in 18th century London that it was a wrench to be pulled back to the 21st century whenever I put the book down. The story follows a Deptford merchant, Mr Hancock, who makes a fortune exhibiting a ‘mermaid’ supposedly found in the Java Sea to London’s crowds. Thus he meets Angelica Neal, a notorious courtesan, who is by turns, greedy, tender, vain, and brilliantly funny. The good-hearted Mr Hancock doesn’t stand a chance. A book about commerce and showmanship, fakery and desire, the appearance of a real mermaid who inspires melancholy in men threatens to disrupt their fledgling union. The characters are vivid and beautifully drawn, the writing lyrical and clever.

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Perfect reading for all fans of The Essex Serpent, Gowar’s darkly spellbinding period novel utilises fantasy and myth to elucidate a complex story of love and obsession, indelibly rooted in 18th century London. Shortlisted for the 2018 Women’s Fiction Prize, The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock shimmers with limpid prose and striking characterisation.
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