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Monday, 10 October 2016

Book review - Becky

E.V. Thompson was a very popular storyteller with over forty historical novels to his name. Becky was published in 1988.

Impecunious artist Fergus Vincent arrives in Lewin’s Mead, a slum area in Bristol in the early 1850s. He’s seeking a friend and mentor, Henry who lives there. Henry told him ‘A good artist is accepted wherever he chooses to work, but he must observe the rules there – their code. Break that code and he might as well pack up and leave.’

Fergus virtually trips over an urchin as he’s seeking his friend. Becky, the unkempt girl of about fourteen summers offers to take him to the attic room, informing him that Henry died from alcoholism, owing rent. On their way, Fergus is involved in an affray with the blackguard bully Joe Skewes and barely escapes, thanks to the intervention of Becky. The Skewes family will haunt his life for a long time afterwards…

With Becky’s aid, Fergus finds his friend’s abode, which is filled with drawings and paintings that will serve to pay for the outstanding rent. On an impulse, Fergus decides to rent the room himself.

Thompson immerses you in the story immediately, with plenty of colourful description and characterisation and humour. His landlady, Ida Stokes is a hard case but with a good heart. Becky soon realises that Fergus has considerable artistic talent when he quickly sketches her admiring some birds outside the attic window. This first sketch will become a much-prized painting much later. Becky is bold, irreverent and says what she feels. ‘You’ve drawn the me that’s inside. Not the me that other people see…. I’m not sure I like it.’

Having been invalided out of the navy, Fergus hasn’t a lot of money. That’s why he elected to live in this attic room, as it was cheap. He grasped the idea that he would sketch the people of the slums, those on the dockside and in the taverns, and perhaps he could earn enough to live off his efforts.

Gradually, he becomes accepted by the local populace, the police, and particularly Becky. There’s nothing untoward between him and the girl, but he does become very fond of her and sketches her a great deal. At one point, he comes into contact with Fanny Tennant, the daughter of an alderman and a teacher of poor children. Fanny becomes his champion, wanting him to succeed in his art. Unfortunately jealousy is aroused in Becky’s breast and problems arise. 

Throughout, Thompson presents the unpalatable but real situation for the slum dwellers. There are good souls who want to help, like Fanny. But it seems that the majority of the Bristol upper class would rather turn a blind eye. This is brought to a head when Fergus gets involved with the plight of a number of Irish immigrants who become prey to cholera. Women and children die, and they’re shunted out of the area, without much medical aid. Fergus recorded their harrowing ordeal with his sketches and managed to prick many a conscience.

The relationship between Fergus and Becky is fraught with obstacles, and their friends suffer too. There do not seem to be any easy answers; how do you pull yourself out of the slum environment and make something of your life? For able-bodied men, they could join the army or navy, but for the women, there was little hope. Thompson captures the despair and the injustice of the time. 

Here’s Fergus’s viewpoint as he approaches a pawn shop with one of his paintings: ‘There were many varied items offered for sale, each one mute evidence of human failure, carrying price-tags that put a pathetic value on heartbreak and poverty. Wedding rings were here aplenty, with brooches and bangles. Few were of any great value, but most had meant far more than money to their late owners…’

The ending is not a happy one. Yet there is a sequel, Lewin’s Mead (1996) which returns to the travails of gutsy Becky in the slum. I have yet to read that, but the romantic in me hopes for a happy ending, even if real life at that time probably had very few of those.

E.V. Thompson can always be relied upon to tell a good tale, whether that's embedded in social deprivation or conflict. He died in 2012, aged 81.

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