I read an enthusiastic review of D. J. Taylor’s novel, and when I looked for it, I realized what a prolific novelist I had stumbled upon. I enjoyed this novel and will undoubtedly read a few more of his dense and beautifully conceived narratives.
D. J. Taylor’s Derby Day (416 pages, Pegasus, $25.95) recounts the build up for the annual horse race in Epsom Downs by looking at a range of characters at different social levels. The result is a richly nuanced account of British society in the later nineteenth century.
Primary among the characters under consideration are Mr. Happerton and his wife. Happerton is a gambler and an investor who buys up debt and then uses it to leverage purchases and financial pressure of various kinds. He runs a dark and underhanded business and his father-in-law, a London attorney called Gresham, distrusts him and despises him.
Gresham’s daughter, Rebecca, perhaps modeled on Thackeray’s Becky Sharpe, from Vanity Fair, never gives too much away. She marries Happerton because he intrigues her, and she is ready to throw her weight and her money behind his scheming and his manipulations.
Primary among these is his purchase of the race horse Tiberius, who is an odds-on favorite for winning the Derby that year. Happerton is only vaguely slowed down in his pursuit of the horse by its being owned by a country gentleman whose financial affairs make him the perfect dupe for Happerton’s techniques; and before anyone really knows what’s happening, Happerton owns the horse and the estate while the poor owner can only apologize to his ancestors and feel a kind of desperation.
Happerton lives large, and he has a few friends, both men and women, that he tries to keep from his wife. When he recognizes that she is willing to support him in whatever he does, he tells her a bit about the horse and what he is trying to do. He also explains why he is trying to ruin the horse’s chances of winning: there is more money, he tells her, if the horse loses and he wins by betting on a long shot.
To make this all work, he hires a decrepit jockey and gets involved with some low-life thieves who help to finance his ascendancy. These activities get more and more sordid, but when Happerton decides to take his mistress to the race instead of his wife, he makes a fatal mistake.
Happerton is the kind of character who has to be brought down, and he plays so fast and loose with the law that it catches up with him eventually. How it does and what forces conspire to bring him down, D. J. Taylor does a lovely job in relating.