The Walworth Beauty by Michèle Roberts — a haunting tale of London prostitutes

Contemporary and Victorian London meet in a sensual novel exploring the city’s secret past

The Walworth Beauty, the 14th novel from Booker-shortlisted writer Michèle Roberts, is a tale of absences and hauntings. The living speak to the dead, the dead whisper softly to the living, and all the characters are in conversation with London, alive to the ghosts and spirits it conceals. For everyone, the past is inescapable.

Here is an homage to all London’s streetwalkers, the professional and the literal. As such the novel is a nod to the city’s wandering writers, Dickens and Woolf foremost among them. In one half of the novel, it is 1851 and Joseph Benson is hired by journalist and social reformer Henry Mayhew, then still researching his regular and groundbreaking newspaper articles about the working classes that will later form his magnum opus, London Labour and the London Poor. It is Joseph’s job to interview the city’s prostitutes and to uncover the reasons for their wanton criminality and lustfulness, on the presumption that such women are seducing happily married men in order to satisfy their own unnaturally urgent female desires.

Joseph must find out the whys and hows, and so goes on a mission to search the streets for girls willing to talk to him (though he is far better at availing himself of their services than the close study of their circumstances). A contact directs him to Apricot Place, where a Mrs Dulcimer sits at the helm of a boarding house populated by variously unfortunate girls and women. She becomes Joseph’s main informant, and an unlikely friend. In an interwoven contemporary narrative, Madeleine transforms herself into a deliberate and self-aware student of the streets, in the tradition of the flâneur (‘flâneuse?’ she wonders), after losing her job as an English professor. She moves across the river to Apricot Place, turning her attention from literature to London.

Although long ago, the sadness and secrets of Apricot Place still seems to permeate. I was reminded of Philip Larkin’s “Deceptions”, a poem whose epigraph was drawn from Mayhew’s London Labour: “Even so distant, I can taste the grief,” it begins, and Madeleine, finely attuned to the old house, senses the suffering of the desperate girls who once sought help at Mrs Dulcimer’s. Larkin goes on, “Slums, years, have buried you. I would not dare/ Console you if I could. What can be said,/ Except that suffering is exact, but where/ Desire takes charge, readings will grow erratic?”

Slums and years have buried Mrs Dulcimer’s girls but theirs is the more vivid of the two stories and we taste their grief as Madeleine later does. Meanwhile, Joseph slowly comes to understand that the desire that takes charge, as Larkin rather mildly puts it, might not, in fact, belong to the girls.

The language is lush and humid as a hothouse, unabashedly sensual. Here as in previous novels Roberts goes to great lengths to touch all the senses — rich scents as well as colours; the sounds to accompany the revolving, evolving city sights. This is above all else a London novel — Covent Garden, Smithfields, Highgate Cemetery, Stew Lane and Waterloo Bridge all pulse with as much life as the characters who walk them.

Readers ought not to expect an extended connection between the contemporary and Victorian narratives. Instead they meet and split, touch lightly upon one another and divide again. The stories are much like the city’s archaeological layers, the degree of seepage open to interpretation. Coincidence or collision? Either here is possible but we are left no doubt that the joy of the city is its dense human history, and the spirits or souls that throb in its many dark places. It is a novel, at core, about empathy. Joseph thinks his way into the spirits of those around him; Madeleine feels her way into the souls that passed before.

As Woolf had it in her essay “Street Haunting”: “Into each of these lives one could penetrate a little way, far enough to give oneself the illusion that one is not tethered to a single mind, but can put on briefly for a few minutes the bodies and minds of others . . . To escape is the greatest of pleasures.” In that way, as Roberts knows, it also resembles the most satisfying fiction.

The Walworth Beauty, by Michèle Roberts, Bloomsbury, RRP£16.99, 389 pages

Francesca Segal’s ‘The Awkward Age’ is published by Chatto in May

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