Writing of A. C. Doyle's The Sign of Four, Leslie Haynsworth argues that "imperial problems are not merely felt by those who have imperial experience--they can also sow the seeds of domestic turmoil."1 This troubling interplay between imperial conquest and domestic trauma has been at the core of Lloyd Shepherd's historical-cum-Gothic novels about Constable Charles Horton, a proto-modern detective in early nineteenth-century England who keeps finding the aftershocks of empire on his own beat. In Shepherd's novels, characters who reap the spoils of colonial adventure bring back other things to the English metropolis, usually as a form of indigenous vengeance. And yet, the violence that results is not "other" to the English character, merely enabled and released by those whom the English sought to exploit. In effect, the empire inadvertently devours itself. Savage Magic, the most recent entry in the series, founds its plot on the cycle of exile and return faced by the men and women who went to Australia, either willingly or not. Unlike the earlier novels, however, Savage Magic spends much more time on structures of exploitation within England itself--especially the oppression of women.
Savage Magic is told from several points of view, from that of Horton's wife Abigail, who has consigned herself to an insane asylum, Brooke House,after the events of the previous novel, to that of Dr. Bryson, the head of the asylum, who decades later writes up a scientific narrative of the strange events that took place in 1814. (As we quickly realize, Bryson is, to say the least, unreliable.) Its plot is influenced by (but does not follow) Mary Wollstonecraft's fragmentary novel Maria; Or, the Wrongs of Woman: Maria Cranfield, a deeply disturbed young woman in the asylum, turns out to be somehow connected to the serial murders of "the Sybarites," hedonistic (and sadistic) upper-class gentlemen whose tastes ape those of the eighteenth-century Hell-Fire Club. Maria had been left unexpectedly penniless by the death of her foster parents and, driven to prostitute herself, was raped (and impregnated) by multiple Sybarites. Her mother, the mysterious Maggie Broad, had conceived Maria before going to Australia, where, forced to marry a worthless husband, she nevertheless prospered by learning farming lore (and other types of lore) from the Aborigines; now back in England, Maggie seeks to avenge her daughter. But how, exactly, does she do it? Meanwhile, Horton investigates a series of bizarre events at Thorpe Lee House in the countryside, where something or someone appears to be driving the residents mad--perhaps murderously so. Country and city horrors turn out, in the end, to be connected: the novel vibrates between Brooke House and Thorpe Lee House, two spaces that ought to be distinct and yet turn out to both embody the dysfunctions of England at the beginning of the nineteenth century.
Like the other novels in the series, Savage Magic's plot suggests a tension between the "disenchanted" world of post-Enlightenment, post-Reformation Protestant England and the "enchanted" world of both non-Western peoples and, in this case, folk traditions. As the Rev. John Leigh-Bennett (one of the historical characters) warns Horton, in rural areas, "[t]hey believe in witches and fairies, in spiritualists and fortune-tellers, in cunning-folk and sorcerers. It's a day-to-day fact of life to them" (96). An irate Horton later declares that witches cannot exist because "[t]here is a law" (273), and his belief that the power of the state can simply override folk practices highlights the irresolvable gap between two very different forms of thinking. But Horton's insistence that modernity is very much marked by a "decline of magic," as Keith Thomas so famously put it, leaves him facing an England that does not make any temporal sense--is the country as "now" as the city? What about the colonial peripheries? (Johannes Fabian's Time and the Other comes to mind.) From the opposite end, Horton's superior, Aaron Graham (another real person), who does believe in supernatural powers at work, sees the possibility of weaponizing Maggie's and Maria's mesmeric abilities, of turning magic to the needs of the state. Graham, in a sense, wishes to colonize the supernatural as well as the natural realms. While this novel, like the others in this series, associates the supernatural with resistance (national, sexual, class-related, and so on), it also suggests that such magical forces are neither easily contained nor, necessarily, politically aligned.
Graham's sense of this super-mesmerism's political potential turns out to be just one more turn of the screw of the novel's larger interest in systems of surveillance, confinement, and crowd control. This series is, after all, an alternate history of the police (who stand in opposition to the self-imposed, albeit also potentially dangerous, local remedies of "rough music" and worse). Bryson's proto-Freudian experiments at Brooke House, for example, are based on the work of Dr. Willis, George III's famous physician, who "achieved his success by asserting his will over his patient" (128). But Bryson complains that women resist his treatment, and the only successful mesmerists in the novel are women like Maggie and Maria, who can not only influence others, but actually rewrite their memories. It's no wonder that Graham becomes fascinated by Maria's possibilities--her disruptive behavior could easily be turned into total mind control. Or, to put it differently, the subversive, properly "trained," might become something very different. Similarly, both Graham and Bryson are obsessed by the need to control what Bryson calls "a kind of perversion of moral sense which is visible wherever one looks" (130)--a perversion that, for Bryson, culminates in the spectacle of prostitution. Graham, more conscious of the financial imperatives driving women to commodify their own bodies, thinks that "tolerat[ing]" the prostitutes is "the only possible balance left to the chaotic, disordered mechanism that is London law and order" (180). Both men take a "conservative" position--Bryson in terms of morality, Graham in terms of maintaining the stability of the social order. Neither one is particularly interested in ameliorating the underlying conditions that give rise to prostitution in the first place.
The trade in female bodies turns out to be one of the novel's dominant figures for oppression. Women going out to Australia become sexual chattel for the sailors; women in Bryson's asylum become experimental subjects; women in London are part of an "illicit trade" (316) that shadows the licit capitalism at work everywhere else. The sadistic justice meted out to the Sybarites, sometimes to the point of literal emasculation, strikes back on the basis of both gender and class--the upper-class men who exploit their social and sexual "inferiors" find themselves destroyed by their own victims. But, as in the other novels, the violence ultimately spends itself: once Maria has been avenged, the serial killings come to a halt. Brutal resistance, if not quite futile, spends itself and dies; the social order, minus a few of its members, remains sturdily intact. The ghost of Mary Wollstonecraft, however, suggests other forces at work.
1 Leslie Haynsworth, "Sensational Adventures: Sherlock Holmes and His Generic Past," English Literature in Transition 1880-1920 44.4 (2001): 469.