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Derby Day

Derby Day

3.7 3
by D. J. Taylor

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Nominated for the Man Booker Prize, an exquisite tale of romance and rivalry, gambling and greed, from one of England’s finest writers.As the shadows lengthen over the June grass, all England is heading for Epsom Down—high life and low life, society beauties and White chapel street girls, bookmakers and gypsies, hawkers and thieves. Hopes are high,


Nominated for the Man Booker Prize, an exquisite tale of romance and rivalry, gambling and greed, from one of England’s finest writers.As the shadows lengthen over the June grass, all England is heading for Epsom Down—high life and low life, society beauties and White chapel street girls, bookmakers and gypsies, hawkers and thieves. Hopes are high, nerves are taut, hats are tossed in the air—this is Derby Day.For months people have been waiting and plotting for this day. Everyone’s eyes are on champion horse Tiberius, on whose performance half a dozen destinies depend. In this rich and exuberant novel, rife with the idioms of Victorian England, the mysteries pile high, propelling us toward the day of the great race, and we wait with bated breath as the story gallops to a finish that no one expects.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
An ardent passion for horse racing in Victorian society shines through in the intricate new novel by British novelist and award-winning Orwell biographer Taylor, where the ambitions of a motley bunch of stakeholders in the season’s largest race collide at London’s Epsom Downs. The foppish George Happerton, a “sporting gentleman,” marries Rebecca Gresham, the spoiled daughter of a lawyer, and purchases proven champion Tiberius. Happerton then schemes with the grubby Captain Raff to use Tiberius to throw the race in their betting favor. They enlist the services of a master thief in the process, attracting the attention of the bloodhound policeman who is investigating a brazen jewelry store burglary. The surprisingly sordid plot builds to the climatic Derby Day’s festivities and includes double-crosses, suicides, and infidelity. Taylor’s rich atmospheric details of British society, confident narrative voice, and brisk pacing create an entertaining Dickensian novel. Agent: Melanie Jackson, the Melanie Jackson Agency. (Apr.)
Financial Times
“Derby Day is a triumphant success. In this unputdownable Victorian romp Taylor enjoyable proves himself to be one of the finest of our 21st-century novelists.”
Conde Nast Traveler
“Derby Day will be hard to put down. As ever with Taylor, literary complexities lurk under the smooth surface of a stylish page-turner.”
Condé Nast Traveler
“Derby Day will be hard to put down. As ever with Taylor, literary complexities lurk under the smooth surface of a stylish page-turner.”
Sunday Times
“Taylor has written an exceptionally clever 19th-century novel with a richness of character that almost matches his models of Dickens and Thackeray.”
Kirkus Reviews
Taylor reinvents the Victorian novel, basing his narrative loosely on W.P. Frith's massive satirical portrait of mid-19th-century English life of the same name. This novel is preoccupied with social status, power relationships and even, as Taylor has it, "d______d villains." Although he creates a diffuse world without much of a center, one of the major players is Mr. Happerton, a ne'er-do-well with the casual villainy of Our Mutual Friend's Alfred Lammle. He marries Rebecca Gresham, the daughter of a wealthy London lawyer, a mariage de convenance that gets him closer to a source of the money he craves for his schemes. Happerton is a sporting gentleman whose obsession is Tiberius, a racehorse owned by the financially strapped Mr. Davenant. Happerton buys up notes to make Davenant indebted to him, though Happerton's sole purpose is to procure Tiberius and run him at Epsom Downs. In his schemes he's assisted by the hapless Captain Raff, who's completely outmaneuvered by the rakish and sharp-witted Happerton. Also involved in the action is Mr. Pardew, suspected of having robbed a London mail train and a man perhaps even shrewder than Happerton. He's on the lam while Captain McTurk, a detective, tries to track him down. Mr. Gresham becomes a valetudinarian, though it remains a possibility that his son-in-law has been slowly poisoning him. The climax of the story is the running of the Derby, and Happerton might be attempting a double cross, betting on a competing horse and trying to ensure Tiberius' loss. A sprawling and expansive novel that will appeal to those who like leisurely paced narratives with authentic 19th-century flavor.
Jonathan Yardley
D.J. Taylor, a British writer of formidable accomplishments…but little known in this country, has pulled off an impressive and wholly engaging feat in Derby Day. Set in London and environs during a few weeks in the reign of Queen Victoria, it is not merely a work of historical fiction but one written in a language appropriate to its time—i.e., it is a Victorian novel, the prose of which brings to mind Thackeray (of course) and Dickens, yet never smacks of cuteness or contrivance. It is delicious fun and can be read purely as such, yet it is also a serious novel about a society caught between the familiar and the new, in which "the world is changing" and leaving many people behind.
—The Washington Post
Christopher Benfey
Taylor has culled Victorian popular literature for pertinent epigraphs to his chapters, and he cleverly evokes the crush and clutter of 19th-century crowds. He knows the difference between a barouche and a britzka, a phaeton and a fly, and has plucked some of his characters from a once-­famous painting of the Derby by William Frith. His roving narrator, who might have strayed from Trollope or Dickens, amiably anticipates the reader's questions.
—The New York Times Book Review
Library Journal
It's Derby Day in 1860s Epsom Downs, and literally everyone is there regardless of age or station, be they rich, poor, criminal, or victim. Taylor elicits a strong sense of place and atmosphere, giving the listener a feeling of being there. Just as fascinating is the broad array of characters, who seem totally unrelated until they eventually connect to one horse, Tiberius. Will he win or lose? And is it a real win or loss? In addition to the riveting story of life before and after the biggest race of the year, an intriguing depiction of the underside of all classes (often absent from such stories) is presented in black, white—and grey. VERDICT Narrator Simon Vance's spirited delivery enhances the splendid description and even better dialog. Listeners feel privy to conversations; the recounting of the race as it happens is perfect.—Susan G. Baird, formerly with Oak Lawn P.L., IL

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Derby Day

By D. J. Taylor


Copyright © 2011 D. J. Taylor
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4532-4916-1


The Conversation in Clipstone Court

A foreign gentleman, who had run horses with great success on the plains of Bremen, once enquired of me: 'Where is it that the sporting men of England may generally be found?' 'My dear sir,' I told him, 'this is a universal passion, its devotees are everywhere, and of all sorts and conditions. A gentlemen's club in Mayfair; the humblest inn in a Whitechapel rookery; the most somnolent village in Barsetshire, but that it has a meadow and a rail for jumping; anywhere and everywhere – these are the places where the sporting men of England are generally to be found.

The Modern Sportsman: His Dress, Habits and Recreations (1865)

Sky the colour of a fish's underside; grey smoke diffusing over a thousand house-fronts; a wind moving in from the east: London.

Clipstone Court lies on the western approach to Tottenham Court Road, slightly beyond Goodge Street, and is not much visited. There is a cab rank at which no cab was ever seen standing, and a murky tobacconist's over whose lintel no customer in search of enlightenment from the copies of The Raff's Journal and The Larky Swell that hang in the window was ever known to tread. An occasional costermonger, thinking to forge a path into Cleveland Street – only the way is barred – drags his barrow through the dusty entry, notes the silence and desolation of the place, and gladly retires. There is also a pump, which nobody ever uses – the quality of the water being horribly suspect – the Clipstone Arms, Jas Fisher, prop., out of whose aquarium-like lower windows a face can occasionally be seen dimly staring, and a kind of rubbish heap made up of ancient packing cases and vegetable stalks which a furious old man who lives up six flights of stairs in a tenement building hard by is always defiantly rearranging in the expectation that it will be taken away, only it never is. All of which gives the place a rather dismal and moral air, as if great truths about human nature could be extracted from it if only you knew where to look.

It was generally agreed that three o'clock in the afternoon – the lunch hour long gone, the evening an eternity away – represented Clipstone Court's lowest ebb, and that if anyone was going to hang himself there, this would be the time to do it: the cab stand vacant, the tobacconist's shop murkier than ever, and a breeze coming in over the rooftops to send the packing-case frames and the vegetable stalks flying over the greystone surround like so much flotsam and jetsam on the seashore. All this the two men in the downstairs bar of the Clipstone Arms saw and no doubt appreciated, but for some reason they did not seem cast down by it. They were sitting at a table in the window, very comfortably ensconced behind a strew of empty pewter pots, and not seeming to care that it was November, so that even now the light was beginning to fade across the court and one or two flakes of snow were drifting in to mingle with the soot on the peeling window sills. A visitor to the bar – and it was otherwise empty – might have thought that there was some mystery about these men, and that the mystery lay not in their outward appearance – they were identically dressed in shabby suits, dirty collars and billycock hats – but in the way they regarded each other: that one of them, taller and perhaps older, imagined himself to be a figure of consequence, and that the other, smaller and perhaps younger, was happy to support him in this belief.

'But you ain't told me yet,' the taller man was saying, looking into the pewter pots one by one to see if they contained any liquor, 'just how you're placed right now.'

'That's so, Mr Mulligan,' the smaller man replied, tapping the underside of his pipe on the table with an extraordinarily dirty hand. 'Well – the fact is, I does run – well – errands for Mr Whalen that keeps the Bird in Hand in Wardour Street, and he lets me – well – make up a book sometimes.'

Mr Mulligan was grimly pouring the dregs from four of the pewter pots into the fifth.

'It ain't a genteel house, the Bird in Hand,' he pronounced.

'No it ain't.' The look on the smaller man's face was quite wonderful to see. 'Dreadful lot of riff-raff they has in there. Irish, too. Never more than a shilling a time. But beggars can't be choosers.'

'You're a poor fish, McIvor, that's what you are' said Mr Mulligan. 'You'd have been better placed a-sticking to Mr Cheeseman that I put you in the way of.'

'You wouldn't say that if you knew about it, Mr Mulligan. Why, if that Cheeseman is worth a ten-pound note nowadays, that's all he is worth.'

Mr Mulligan put the pewter pot down upon the table and examined his fingers, as if they were a row of saveloy sausages he might very soon begin to eat.

'You aren't telling me, McIvor, that Cheeseman is light on the tin? A man as had his own carriage in the ring at Epsom only this May past.'

'It was the St Leger that did for him, Mr Mulligan. Took seven hundred pounds on Duke's Delight at threes, laid most of it off on Antimacassar – Lord Purefoy's horse, you know – and the animal, which everyone knew was a certainty, never came out of the ditch at the thirteenth.'

'Seven hundred pounds at threes!' Mr Mulligan shook his head, stuck his thumb into his mouth and bit off a piece of skin near the nail. 'Couldn't he have placed no more side-bets?'

'Antimacassar was so mortal 'igh among the fancy, Mr Mulligan. He'd had Lord Purefoy's man sending him intelligence from the stables, and you can't say fairer than that.'

Mr Mulligan inspected his fingers again, but he knew that the beauty had gone out of them. The snowflakes had stopped falling and the wind was whirling a little pile of dirt around the nearside corner of the court like a dervish.

'These are bad times, McIvor,' he remarked. 'Confounded bad. 'Ow a gentleman is to make an honest penny out of the game I hardly know. Why, there's some publicans'll split if they so much as sees a slip passing hands. And that McTurk has such a down on us.' Seeing a look of enquiry in his companion's eye, he went on: 'The p'liceman. Regular down he has. Why, there was half a dozen peelers went into the Jolly Butcher in the Kennington Road the other night, and bless me if the landlord ain't been summonsed. Lose his licence, most probably, poor feller.'

'They're terrible hard, them magistrates,' Mr McIvor said, who may have had some dealings of his own with the bench. 'But tell me, Mr Mulligan' – this was said with an extreme deference – 'what is it that you've been engaged upon since you last did me the honour of tendering some advice?'

'What have I been engaged upon? That's cheek, McIvor, and you know it. But seeing that you're a respectful young feller – yes, I will 'ave another go of this porter if you'll be so kind – I'll tell you. Fact is, I've been working for Mr Newcome that has the Three Bells in Shoreditch.'

'I've had dealings with Newcome,' said McIvor, with perhaps the very faintest note of asperity, 'and he never said anything about it.'

'No more he would. You don't think a man as employs a private detective to spot his wife in the crim. con. goes and advertises the fact, do you? No, I never come into the Three Bells. Leastways, not when there's anyone there. Just this last month now, I've been up in Leicestershire.'

'No meetings anywhere there this month, surely?' McIvor countered.

'No more there aren't. But it's where Mr Mahoney's place is – he that ran Tarantella in the Oaks – and that's where I've been.'

'And what did you do there?'

'I ain't proud' – in fact the expression on Mr Mulligan's face suggested that he was as proud as Lucifer. 'I can shift a load of muck with the best of them. No, I've been working in the stables.'

'What – and picking up gen?'

'That's about the strength of it.' Two fresh pots of porter, signed up to Mr McIvor's account, had now appeared on the table. 'Your very good health.'

'Why aren't you there now?' McIvor wondered.

'If we was brothers, I'd tell you. Seeing as we're not, I shan't. Besides,' Mr Mulligan added grandly, 'there's nothing to do in Leicestershire save chase foxes. You wouldn't catch me living there if I was made a present of forty acres. But see here' – and he leant across the table, speaking in a more confidential tone – 'this ain't buttering any bread. I take it you think I'm tolerably downy, McIvor?'

'I should think you ought to know what o'clock it was, if anyone should,' said Mr McIvor admiringly, who had been very impressed by the excursion to Leicestershire.

'Well then, here's a dodge that might serve us. Seventy-thirty split, mind. And you'd have to do the work.'

'It ain't taking a shop for some auctioneer's leavings?'

'No indeed. Just opening letters. And sending 'em too. A child could do it. But the trick is pulling 'em in. Once you've got them you're safe. And no one any the wiser. Now, you've a tip or two in your head, I suppose?'

'Everyone has tips.'

'Maybe they do. And there are fools out there willing to pay for them. But it's hartistry as counts. Widder with three orphan children in her care has sporting intelligence to communicate – that kind of thing. And colours. Always mention the colours. There's folk sets great store by them. Now, let us have pen and paper and set to work.'

These articles having been procured from the landlord, together with two more pots of porter, for which McIvor again paid, or rather said that he would do so, Mr Mulligan bent his head over the table top. Outside the shadows were crawling yet higher up the walls of Clipstone Court and the furious old man had rushed down his staircase and was angrily gathering up the packing-case fragments.

'Shy kind of place, ain't it?' Mr Mulligan said. Plainly the act of composition did not come easily to him. First he scratched negligently with his pen at the foolscap sheet before him, only to obliterate what he had just written. Then he took heart again, dashed off a sentence, looked at it sadly and then drew his nib carefully through at least half the words. McIvor stared out into the court and amused himself by looking at an engraving of the Battle of Waterloo that hung above a poster saying that Jack Dobbs the Rottingdean Fibber's benefit was coming off at John Dawdsey's shop, the Horseferry Road, and all sporting gentlemen were respectfully entreated to attend. In ten minutes, and with several rendings of the foolscap sheet, the business was done and Mr Mulligan held up the surviving fragment of paper proudly to the light.

'Here we are then. A widowed lady, relict of a gentleman long esteemed in some of the highest sporting establishments in the land, is in possession of information pertaining to this year's Derby race, which she will gladly divulge in exchange for the sum of one half-crown, to be remitted to Mrs Faraday, Post Office, Drury Lane, London W. Reads well, don't it?'

'I should say it does,' said Mr McIvor, who had been very impressed by the word 'pertaining'. 'But what do we do when folks start sending their money in?'

'What do we do? Why, we send them the name of an 'oss. Mind you, it's to be a good one, for if it succeeds, why, we can try the dodge again. That's the beauty of it.'

'What about Broomstick, Lord Mountfichet's bay, that was of Tanglewood by Saracen?'

'Gammon! They'll be turning him into dog-meat come next Michaelmas, if what I hear's true.'

'Mariner, then, that did so well at Doncaster.'

'Ah, but he's no staying power, has he? And they say that Mr Ticklerton don't care for the sport since his wife died. No, I say we go for that horse in Lincolnshire.'

Seeing from the look on McIvor's face that he had never heard of any horse in Lincolnshire, he went on:

'Tiberius. Mr Davenant's horse. The one that ran five furlongs in a minute and five on Newmarket Heath last spring, and that Joey Bailey would have rode in the Ascot New Stakes if he hadn't broke 'is collar-bone the week before. Was a feller talking of him no end in Post and Paddock the other month. I remarked it at the time. Mr Newcome is already offering tens on him, and nobody knowing whether he's to run or no.'

McIvor said he was sure that Mr Mulligan was right; the piece of paper was folded up and secured in the back pocket of Mr Mulligan's shabby suit, later to be conveyed in a dirty envelope to the offices of the Holborn & St Pancras Journal in Gower Street, two more pots of porter were called for, a few more flakes of snow drifted down over the sooty window-fronts, the gloomy doorways were gathered up in blackness, and evening came to Clipstone Court.


Belgrave Square

TIBERIUS from Paduasoy, by Architrave, whose grandsire was Cotillion. Own. Mr Davenant, of Scroop, Lincolnshire. Captain Coker rode him very prettily in the Lincoln Trial Stakes. A dainty horse, of no size (15h) but strong in the field.

Fancyman's Guide to the Turf (1868)

Mr Gresham, the old lawyer who lived on the corner of Belgrave Square where it runs into Chapel Street, had but one disappointment in his life, and that was his daughter. He had married at fifty, and his wife had died very soon after, and the daughter had been intended to console him for his loss. Somehow this had not happened, and Mr Gresham had been made miserable by it. And then, afterwards, his misery had been increased by the fact that he could not quite understand why his daughter – Rebecca – fell short of the expectations that he had of her. She was a slim, sandy-haired girl of twenty-two or twenty-three, with features that, however placidly she composed them, hinted at inward calculation, and one or two people said that she reminded them of that other Rebecca in Mr Thackeray's novel.

Mr Gresham had heard something of this, and been wounded by it. He was a hale, thin, unutterably respectable old man of seventy-five, who had worked in the Equity Courts for fifty years, so old that he remembered the Prince Regent in his carriage racketing along Cornhill. He was anxious to stand well with the world, anxious for his daughter's happiness, if what could make her happy could ever be found, but aware, however obscurely, that in the course of his dealings with her something had gone wrong. Watching her at a tea table, on the staircase at some Pont Street party, or even stepping into the brougham that carried her around the park, he was conscious that there was a – slyness was perhaps too harsh a word – deeper motivation that he could not quite fathom. Mr Gresham liked spontaneity in women, he liked smiling countenances, soft looks and meek attention, and he did not find them in Miss Rebecca. He supposed – and it was a subject that he brooded on – that she had been spoiled, and that he had done the spoiling.

Old lawyers, even those who have worked in the Equity Courts for fifty years and are as rich as Croesus, seldom come to rest in Belgravia, but Mr Gresham had married a marquis's daughter and the house at the corner of Chapel Street had been part of the bargain. So, perhaps, had the daily carriage ride in the park. There were times when Mr Gresham regretted both the house and the carriage, and wished that he lived quietly in Manchester Square with a housekeeper and a couple of maidservants to cosset him, but the choice had been made and there was no going back from it. And so the pair of them went on in the big, draughty house, with the carriages rushing in the square beyond, irritating each other as only two people who are united by blood and detached by temperament can do. Sometimes Mr Gresham held out olive branches, and those olive branches were refused. Sometimes, thinking to appease him, his daughter revealed some part of her calculation to paternal gaze and he was disgusted by it. That was all.


Excerpted from Derby Day by D. J. Taylor. Copyright © 2011 D. J. Taylor. Excerpted by permission of PEGASUS BOOKS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

D. J. Taylor’s Orwell won the Whitbread Prize for Biography.
His most recent books are Kept; Bright Young People; Ask Alice; and Derby Day, which was nominated for the Booker Prize and was selected as a Washington Post Best Book of the Year.

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Derby Day: A Novel 3.7 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 3 reviews.
joyhawk99 More than 1 year ago
This book is especially interesting to racing fans, which we are, and to lovers of Victorian lit. This shows the seamier side of Victorian life, not seen in Dickens or Trollope, especially with regard to horseracing, horse owners, and those who work with them. Loved the punchline ending. A very unusual Victorian lady is the heroine.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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