Bellman & Black by Diane Setterfield



“As a boy, William Bellman commits one small cruel act that has unforeseen and terrible consequences. By the time he is grown, with a family of his own, he seems to be a man blessed by fortune – until tragedy strikes. Desperate to save the one precious thing he has left, William enters into a rather strange bargain, with an even stranger partner, to found a decidedly macabre business. And thus, Bellman & Black is born.”



A new book by Diane Setterfield is cause for celebration. Her freshman outing, The Thirteenth Tale, was a delicious gothic novel involving the daughter of a bookseller and a ruined old house. Universally loved, it was – surprisingly – a genuinely wonderful book. Popularity doesn’t always equal quality but it certainly did with The Thirteenth Tale. A delightful surprise and well-deserved success for a new writer.


Like other fans of her first book, I’ve been looking forward to her second. It’s a wait that’s felt interminable: six years to be specific. But she’s come through with a corker, a second book arguably better than her first.

Yes, BETTER THAN HER FIRST. You read that correctly.

Bellman & Black is dark. Very dark, as the title suggests. William Bellman is the main character, at the beginning of the book a young, typically high-spirited, rambunctious boy fond of hanging out with his friends, committing small acts of badness. In the opening scene he sports a slingshot. Taunted by his friends and despite his own queasy feelings of unease, he aims a small stone at a rook impossibly out of range. But his trajectory, the arc of the stone’s flight, is perfect. He picks off the bird, knocking it to the ground, dead:

“He felt something move in his chest, as though an organ had been removed and something unfamiliar left in its place. A sentiment he had never suspected the existence of bloomed in him. It traveled from his chest along his veins to every limb. It swelled in his head, muffled his ears, stilled his voice, and collected in his feet and fingers. Having no language for it, he remained silent, but felt it root, become permanent.”

Bellman & Black

Young Will could never have dreamed the ramifications of killing a rook, an act he regretted but too late. The price he pays throughout the remainder of his life is inordinately steep, the story accompanied by Setterfield’s complete and thorough re-telling of the legend and lore of the rook, a bird with a long and storied past. The tale unfolds slowly. Deliciously – though painfully – so, as Will grows up, marries and makes his way in the world.

In the great scheme of things, despite the loss of so much he should have felt more, all that motivates him is success in everything he touches. He’s willing to work for it, around the clock if necessary, with more efficiency than any other human being could be expected. The toll it takes, in the form of nightmares and insomnia, brings him low but his determination powers him through. Yet, curiously, it isn’t the money he craves. He lives the life of a monk in his cell. Rather, it’s his mania for excelling he cannot resist. Others in his circle who see his success at first feel jealousy, yet once they weigh the cost find it not at all worth the price.

William Bellman ultimately builds around himself an empire, dedicated to the expensive necessities surrounding mourning in Victorian society, a time in which the observation of death is virtually a competition. The proper accoutrements surrounding it are many and expensive, if done correctly – and they must be done correctly. Only the dirt poor were excused from showy, lavish funerals requiring everything from the appropriate crepe cloth for black dresses to the nodding black feathers adorning the six horses pulling the funeral carriage. Death being inevitable, and the Victorians holding it in such esteem, the business is secure. After all, one thing no one can escape is dying. Success building upon success he soon becomes one of the most respected and prosperous businessmen in the city.

But oh, the price he pays.

The more wealthy he becomes, the less human he behaves. Paranoia mounts. He starts seeing birds everywhere: threatening, purply-black birds with sharp beaks an implied threat. In the background a certain Mr. Black lurks, a mysterious, threatening entity from earlier in William’s life. As with the nightmares and the paranoia and the horror of birds, Mr. Black inspires in him a level of dread and white-knuckle fear he can’t express but also can’t escape.

Of course I won’t spoil the plot for you; that would be as much a tragedy as the storyline of Bellman & Black, a novel that moved me deeply. It’s gothic, improbable and filled with hints of the supernatural, yet at its core the truth is all too possible. What makes the heart ache are the brief moments of clarity, when Will realizes what he’s become yet does nothing. His drive to succeed is just too strong; it is his undoing.

And the prose! Flawless. I love finding little niggling details to complain about in every book but I couldn’t find even one in Setterfield’s second book. For all that The Thirteenth Tale was an especially well-written book, this one really is – as I said earlier – even better. If you loved her first book you should consider pre-ordering – or putting on hold at the library – Bellman & Black. Did this book take so long because she was going over it with a fine-toothed comb? Certainly seems like it. And it was worth the wait.

You will love it. YOU WILL. Easily one of the best books I’ve read this year.


  • Hardcover: 336 pages
  • Publisher: Atria/Emily Bestler Books (November 5, 2013)

Thank you to NetGalley for my e-Galley of this book.

Thank you, thank you!



The history of the observation of death in the Victorian era is fascinating to explore. Books written about it are many and would be an excellent complement to this novel.

Here’s one place to start:

The Victorian Celebration of Death by James Stevens Curl

FACTOID: in the Victorian era it was not uncommon to pose a corpse into a life-like position, in order to take a portrait. Sometimes these were family group portraits and often eyes would be painted onto the dead loved one’s lids to simulate life.


Google the Victorian death portraits if you can stomach it.


Edgar Johnson on Charles Dickens: Maria Beadnell

Mariabeadnell_1 Could this sweet face be that of the original for Estella? After finishing Johnson’s chapter on Dickens’s ultimately heartbreaking relationship with Maria Beadnell I find myself asking that question.

Charles Dickens met Maria Beadnell when he was 17 years old. He got along famously with Maria’s family from the start. He and all the Beadnell girls had a marvelous time together, laughing and singing and generally carrying on as much as Victorian teenagers were allowed. Charles fell head over heels for the lovely Maria, and he fell hard. She, in turn, was apparently smitten with him, as well. Either that or she played the part very convincingly.

Unfortunately for him, Charles wasn’t a good catch.  As a lowly court reporter with no clear expectations for more on the horizon, he was not at all the sort of man the Beadnells wanted to see their daughter marry. After the Beadnells found out John Dickens had been incarcerated in Marshalsea for a time that was apparently the last nail in that coffin. The Beadnell pater sent Maria packing to the continent, to cool things off a little. When she returned Maria was a different sort of girl. She was cold and aloof to Charles, making him feel very hurt and puzzled. Though he’d nursed his flame for her the entire time she was away, she’d apparently moved beyond him. After a few attempts to reconcile, Charles ultimately had to give up his hopes for Maria. He slunk away, heartbroken.

Cold, aloof, beautiful and trifling with a man’s affections. Sounds like Estella to me. Though it’s rash to jump to conclusions, I would really not be surprised to think this defining episode in his life ultimately made it into Dickens’s fiction. Was Dickens thinking of Maria when he wrote Great Expectations? Hopefully I’ll find an answer to that somewhere.


More on Poor Miss Finch, Sorry


I didn’t have time to fully digest having finished Poor Miss Finch before I raced off that bragging post that I’d finished it. I was so eager to entice others to read it I didn’t take due time thinking more about it. That will teach me to be such a vulgar thing.

Even though this is a truly RIPPING YARN, what made it exceptional at the time was the fact no one had really written from a blind person’s perspective before, or at least not with the sort of detail and thought Collins did. The passages written after Lucilla regains her sight (okay, cat out of bag partially but there’s MUCH MORE to it) are wonders of insightful prose. Collins describes her challenges with things like depth perception, and in thinking about it doesn’t that make perfect sense? Lucilla has to close her eyes, at first, just to make her way across a room. Distance has no meaning for her as she’d never seen it before, or hadn’t since before she was one year old.

Writing was a challenge, too, though she could write when she was blind. She knew how to form characters but couldn’t recognize them when she saw them, much less make them by use of her sight. In another very moving scene Lucilla is shown a round and a square object, and asked “which is round?” She couldn’t say. She’d never SEEN the concepts of round and square before. Again, she had to close her eyes and feel them both to know the answer.

Throughout all these “tests” Lucilla felt completely humiliated and stupid that she couldn’t do these very basic things, and declared she wished she were blind again. Really moving stuff, written with so much empathy and attention to detail.

That’s an even more exceptional dimension to Poor Miss Finch, in case anyone wasn’t swayed by the great storyline. I recommend it very, very highly.

More Edgar Johnson on Charles Dickens


  • Paperback: 688 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin Classics (February 1, 1998)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0140435808
  • ISBN-13: 978-0140435801

Before Dickens was a novelist he was, hold onto your bonnets, a reporter with a truly masterful grasp of shorthand.

(Okay, not really surprising OR earth-shattering. I’m just having a very slow day and am looking for any bit of sensation I can get.)

After the blacking factory Dickens did, as I think I already mentioned, return to school. He was known as a chubby, animated boy who loved laughing best of all.

He finished his schooling and very soon decided to try his hand at journalism, becoming lightning fast at writing shorthand. Not only was he fast, though, he was more importantly accurate. And, not just accurate as far as taking down dictation, but he wrote very, very well. People began to take notice of this. Most importantly
, employers began to realize here was an exceptionally gifted writer.mariabeadnell

That’s as far as I’ve gotten with the Edgar Johnson bio. Dickens is just now earning a name for  himself in journalism and making friends with abandon. He’s met and fallen in love with his first love, Maria Beadnell (PHOTO at right of the pretty thing), but I haven’t gotten into that very much just yet. I already know how that romance ends, but I’m looking forward to learning the details, cheeky gossip that I a

I’ll soon be taking a pause from the Johnson bio to read the selected journalism of Dickens, published by Penguin. I’ve had my copy of this book for years, and now seems as good a time as any to finally read it. I’m very curious to read these early writings, to compare and contrast with what I know of Dickens the novelist. Are there hints of his later, distinctive style in his reportings? I’ll soon know.

Poor Miss Finch by Wilkie Collins – Pt. 2

Poormissfinch_3 I raced to the end of Poor Miss Finch this afternoon, galloping to the finish.

If you read my earlier post you’ll know this is a book about a young blind woman named Lucilla Finch. She’s engaged to a man, Oscar Dubourg, who’s turned blue from the chemical silver nitrate, a remedy he’s taking to cure his epilepsy. Lucilla has always expressed a horror of “dark people,” and doesn’t know her fiance is BLUE. He, in turn, is torn as to whether or not he should even tell her, relying instead on dumb luck she won’t find out while he’s thinking over the matter.

Her fiance’s twin brother, Nugent, arrives on the scene. He falls in love with Lucilla basically on first sight, then recommends a German eye specialist who can cure her. From there on things get really, truly wild. The battle is joined between the two twins, one turning on the other, until the eventual climax…

OH, no, I’m not telling you that! Suffice to say it was a book that left me breathless, and this is a genuine RIPPING YARN of a book.

So, that’s Book # 2 for me this year, Poor Miss Finch by Wilkie Collins.  I’ll give it four of five BLUE STARS.

Edgar Johnson on Charles Dickens


Charles Dickens: His Tragedies and Triumphs by Edgar Johnson

When Charles Dickens was a young boy, as the story goes, he and his father strolled past a house called Gads Hill Place. The young Charles was smitten by the house, and longed to one day live in it. His father, John Dickens, told him if he worked very hard all his life and applied himself to his work, he just may be able to achieve that dream.

And, of course, Charles Dickens did just that. He worked very hard, became extraordinarily famous, and for the last twelve years of his life he lived at Gads Hill Place, dying there in 1870.

Edgar Johnson’s two-volume biography of Charles Dickens is considered by many to be the definitive work on the life of the great author. After having spent last evening reading the first four chapters of this work I think I understand exactly why that is. Charles Dickens: His Tragedy and Triumph reads more like a novel than a straight biography. It’s written in a style that seems to have been influenced by Dickens himself, and this very high quality of non-fiction prose likely has a lot to do with the fact the biography is still so highly recommended today.

charlesdickenschildIn the first four chapters of this book I got a very good picture of what Dickens’s early life must have been like. Though I knew the basics of it, I didn’t fully realize the extent of how much his years in the blacking factory really impacted him.

I also had a false idea of the sort of man I thought John Dickens must have been. A father who brings financial ruin to his family, and then sends his young son out to support himself by working in a blacking factory against his will, ending his schooling in order that the boy may support himself, doesn’t earn high marks from me. I assumed John Dickens must have been either a wreckless gambler or a hard-hearted man, but the reality seems quite different. Though it’s true he was a man who couldn’t manage money, and whose love of the finer things in life made it impossible for him to live within his means, he doesn’t seem like the black-hearted wretch I always thought he must be. According to Johnson, he was really a good man who just had problems managing his personal finances. When it gets to be really disastrous, though, is when you have a wife and several children you’re responsible for, as John Dickens did. To fail and go bankrupt is bad enough, but dragging your entire family into the poor house is another thing entirely.

So, whatever the judgment on John Dickens, young Charles wound up having to quit school and work in a the Warren Blacking Factory (right), doing menial wwarrenblackingfactoryork, at quite a young age. His little spirit was crushed, and his heart broken, partly because
this meant he had to separate from his family (who wound up in a debtor’s prison) and because he had to quit school. Quitting  school seems to have been the truly demoralizing part of the ordeal for Charles, who was driven to learn from an early age.When the day came he could no longer attend school it was a terrible blow for him.

As the story further goes, Charles was still in the blacking f
actory even after his father had managed to pay his debt and be released. Though he’d assumed he’d be returned to his normal life after that happy event, things continued much the same for him. The breaking point came when John Dickens walked past the blacking factory and found his son on virtual display in the window, demonstrating how quickly he could paste labels on blacking bottles and becoming somewhat of a sideshow. The humiliation of the public display apparently led him to protest to the manager, and the manager let Charles go. Charles, it seems, cried upon his dismissal as it was so abrupt he wasn’t sure if it was due to his own fault. Even though he’d gotten at least part of his heart’s desire, his sense of failure led him to break down. Such a sad image.

Dickens’s early years had such a huge impact on him he never felt comfortable telling anyone about his past, not even his wife. It was only after his death, when the first biography of his life came out, that his family even knew the details. Imagine the weight of carrying that secret shame around with him, and how difficult it must have been.  It really gives a more complete picture of the great writer knowing where he came from and what he experienced, especially in these crucial early years.

The Edgar Johnson biography is so wonderful I can’t even express it. I’m looking forward to getting back to it.

Poor Miss Finch by Wilkie Collins

Poormissfinch_2 Is this book ever heating up.

Here’s the scenario:

An Italian widow comes to live with the Finch family, to be a companion to the blind daughter who was the product of Rev. Finch’s marriage to his first wife, a woman who promptly died after the birth of little Lucilla. Lucilla was born with her sight, but at one year of age was struck blind.

Lucilla does very well for herself using her other senses, and takes justifiable delight and pride in her independence, yet the Finches feel she needs a companion with whom to share her days.  For one thing, the second Mrs. Finch has FOURTEEN CHILDREN to care for, and can’t keep watch on them and Lucilla at the same time. Enter her companion, whose real purpose in the book is to be the narrator of Lucilla’s life.

Lucilla falls in love with Oscar Dubourg, after hearing his voice one day. Eventually he also falls in love with the beautiful blind girl, but after a head injury suffered during a robbery at his shop (he’s a gold/silversmith who creates lovely sculptures, vases, etc.) he develops epilepsy, a fact that threatens his marital plans with Lucilla. One day a specialist tells Oscar he can, in fact, be cured, but the price is high. Silver nitrate will cure his epilepsy, but it will also turn him a dark blueish black color. He thinks to himself, his bride will never see his true color and his secret can be kept. But, it’s also true Lucilla has a horror of “dark people,” and her chief delight  upon first meeting Oscar was in hearing he was even more fair than she…

Dum, dum, dummmm……

So, things are coming along nicely until the day Oscar’s twin brother, Nugent, arrives. Nugent is an artist who’s been away in America (WHY he’s been away I won’t tell you…), and he and Oscar are very close. Lucilla’s completely jealous of Nugent’s place in Oscar’s heart, and when Nugent meets Lucilla he’s struck by her beauty.  Upon seeing her he also feels compelled to tell her companion he knows an eye specialist who may be able to restore Lucilla’s sight.

So, Oscar’s posed to marry Lucilla, and Oscar’s bright blueish/black. His epilepsy is nearly cured, and Lucilla’s none the wiser as to his “new look.” Nugent’s on the scene, ready to send away for the doctor who may or may not restore Lucilla’s sight…


That’s where I’m at in the book right now, and I really won’t spoil the plot by telling you any more than this. I’m just thrilled by the plot of this book, and though I can imagine what MAY happen, I don’t know what WILL…

Wilkiecollins_1 Here’s to William Wilkie Collins and this very satisfying read. It has me biting my nails off in consternation and nervousness. He’s seldom let me down with his books in the past, and I have a feeling this one may be one of those I’ll be recommending. I do know I can’t wait to find how all this turns out.