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Circumstances propel Maggs into the home of Sir Percival Buckle, where he is quickly employed as a footman, and where he catches the eye of a saucy chambermaid with a tragic past. An attack of tic doloureux brings Maggs to the attention of ambitious young writer Tobias Oates, who employs the newly fashionable "science" of animal magnetism to draw out the "phantom" in Maggs' subconscious that is causing the pain. Under hypnosis, Maggs reveals some of his secrets, and Oates determines -- without informing Maggs -- to make his reputation with a novel about the criminal mind. Oates has other tawdry secrets -- an affair with his sister-in-law, monstrous debts, the legacy of a terrible childhood -- but he is protected by the veneer of respectability. Indeed, the thin line between respectability and ruin, the corrupting power of money and the cruelty of class distinctions are themes that Carey rings with adroit authority.
As the plot rockets along with surprises at every turn, Carey creates a vivid, multifaceted picture of 1800s London, especially the squalid and tormented lives of the poor and the criminal underclass. The racy, pungent dialogue is faithful to period idioms and to the muscular vulgarity of Cockney slang. Best of all, Carey's memorable characters can stand proudly in the pantheon beside those of Dickens.
"After a chapter or two, the mists, potions and smells of 1830s England begin to seep off the page, and Carey's new novel makes its presence felt . . . This is an absorbing, beautifully written novel."
"A novel written to remind us just what pleasures a whacking good yarn can deliver."
It was a Saturday night when the man with the red waistcoat arrived in London. It was, to be precise, six of the clock on the fifteenth of April in the year of 1837 that those hooded eyes looked out the window of the Dover coach and beheld, in the bright aura of gas light, a golden bull and an overgrown mouth opening to devour him--the sign of his inn, the Golden Ox.
The Rocket (as his coach was aptly named) rattled in through the archway to the inn's yard and the passengers, who had hitherto found the stranger so taciturn, now noted the silver-capped cane which had begun to tap the floor at Westminster Bridge--commence a veritable tattoo.
He was a tall man in his forties, so big in the chest and broad in the shoulder that his fellows on the bench seat had felt the strain of his presence, but what his occupation was, or what he planned to do in London, they had not the least idea. One privately imagined him a book-maker, another a gentleman farmer and a third, seeing the excellent quality of his waistcoat, imagined him an upper servant wearing his master's cast-off clothing.
His face did not deny the possibility of any of these occupations; indeed he would have been a singular example of any one of them. His brows pushed down hard upon the eyes, and his cheeks shone as if life had scrubbed at him and rubbed until the very bones beneath his flesh had been burnished in the process. His nose was large, hawkish, and high-bridged. His eyes were dark, inquiring, and yet there was a bruised, even belligerent quality which had kept his fellow passengers at their distance all through that long journey up from Dover.
No sooner had they heard the coachman's Whoa-up than he had the door open and was out into the night without having said a single word.
The first of the passengers to alight after him saw the stranger take the porter, a famously insolent individual, firmly by the shoulder blade. He held him there for a good moment, and it was obvious from the look which appeared on that sandy-haired individual's face, that he held him very hard indeed.
"Now pay attention to me, Sir Reverence."
The porter was roughly escorted to the side of the coach.
"You comprennay-voo?" The stranger pointed with his cane to a large trunk on the roof. "The blue item. If it would not inconvenience your Lordship."
The porter made it clear that it would not inconvenience him in the least. Then some money changed hands and the man with the red waistcoat set off into the night, his cane tapping on the cobblestones, and straight up into the Haymarket, his chin up and the orbs of his eyes everywhere reflecting an unearthly flare and glare.
This light had shone all the way from the Elephant and Castle: gas light, blazing and streaming like great torches; sausages illuminated, fish and ice gleaming, chemist shops aglow like caves with their variegated vases illuminated from within. The city had become a fairground, and as the coach crossed the river at Westminster the stranger saw that even the bridges of the Thames were illuminated.
The entire Haymarket was like a grand ball. Not just the gas, the music, the dense, tight crowds. A man from the last century would not have recognized it; a man from even fifteen years before would have been confused. Dram shops had become gin palaces with their high great plate-glass windows, their engraved messages: "Gin at Threepence--Generous Wines--Hot Spiced." This one here--it was like a temple, damned if it was not, the door surrounded by stained panes of rich dye: rosettes, bunches of grapes. The big man pushed his way up to the bar and got himself a dram of brandy which he drank in a gulp. When he turned, his face revealed a momentary confusion.
Two children were now tugging around his sleeves but he seemed so little aware of their presence that he walked out into the street without once looking down at them.
All around him was uproar, din, the deafening rush, the smell of horse shit, soot, that old yellow smell of London Town.
"Come on, Guv, come with me."
"Come on, Sir."
A young woman with a feathered hat had placed her hand on his elbow: such a handsome face, such short legs. He tugged himself free, walked on a yard or so, and blew his great hawk's nose like a mighty trumpet. As he carefully refolded his handkerchief--a bright green Kingsman of an earlier time he inadvertently revealed the stumps of the two middle fingers on his left hand, a sight which had already excited curiosity aboard the Rocket.
His Kingsman safely put away for the moment, he started along the Strand, then seemed to change his mind, for a moment later he was heading up Agar Street, then cutting up to Maiden Lane.
In Floral Street, he paused before the now illuminated window of McClusky's Pudding Shop. He blew his nose again, whether from soot or sentiment the face gave no indication, and then, having entered that famously lopsided little shop, emerged with a syrup dumpling sprinkled liberally with confectioner's sugar. He ate the dumpling in the street, still walking. What he began in Floral Street he finished back on St Martin's Lane. Here, just a little south of Seven Dials, the stranger stood on a quiet dark corner, alone, free from the blaze of gas.
It was Cecil Street he had come to, a very short street linking Cross Street to St Martin's Lane. He dusted down his face carefully with his kerchief, and then set off into the darkness, peering to find what street numbers he could see--none.
He had almost arrived at the great river of Cross Street, with its noise and congestion of gigs and post-chaises, hackney cabs and dog-carts, when he came upon a single phaeton stopped in the street. It was a most expensive equipage, that much was clear even in the dark, and indeed, once he had crossed the street, there was sufficient light to make out a gold coronet emblazoned on the shining black door. From inside he could hear the sound of a young woman weeping.
A moment later, he would have been in Cross Street. However, the door of the carriage opened and a matron in a long dress descended from the coach and addressed the person still seated inside. "Good night, Mum," she said.
Hearing this voice, the stranger stopped abruptly in his tracks.
The phaeton drove off but the stranger stayed very still in the shadow of a doorway whilst the matron opened the gate leading to a high narrow house directly opposite him. A feeble yellow light showed through the fan light above the front door.
Then he spoke: "Excuse me, Missus, but is this Number Four?"
"If you've come for tablets, come back tomorrow."
"Mary Britten," he said.
He could hear her rattling a big bunch of keys.
"You come back tomorrow," she said.
The stranger stepped into the middle of the street.
"Get a lamp, Mary."
"Someone you should recognize, Mary Britten."
She remained with her back to him, still busy with her bunch of keys. "It's dark. Come back tomorrow."
"Someone you should recognize covered with soot."
Finally, she found the right key. The door swung open, and the feeble yellow light--there was an oil lamp burning in the hallway of the house--revealed a tall, handsome woman in a long dress: blue or green, very fancy-looking, shimmering like silk. She hesitated a moment, an old lady, all of seventy years, but such was her carriage and her bearing that she would pass, in this light anyway, for fifty.
"So this is Cecil Street," he said. "I thought it would be posher."
She hesitated, peering into the night, one hand ready on the door handle. "What you doing here?" she whispered. "You're a dead man if they find you."
"That's a nice home-coming."
"Don't bring your trouble here," she said.
"You got respectable."
"You come to put the bite?"
"I'm doing well myself," the stranger said. "You going to ask me in?"
She made no move to offer an invitation, but her tone did become more solicitous. "They treat you bad?"
"How'd you know I was here?"
"I saw your puff in the newspaper."
"And now you've come home to play the old dart, you varmint."
"No, Ma. I'm retired. I come here for the culture."
She laughed harshly. "The operah?"
"Oh yes," said the stranger seriously. "The opera, the theater, I got a lot of time to make up for."
"Well, I must go to bed, Jack. So you must forgive me not inviting you in to have a chat."
"Perhaps I'll look up Tom."
"Oh Jesus, Jack."
"You bastard." she cried with real emotion. "You know he's dead."
"No! No, I never."
"God help me, Jack, God save me. I ain't so green as that. I know who you paid. I know how it were arranged and all."
"I didn't pay no one nothing, I swear."
"What do you want, Jack?" said the old woman, and this time her voice quavered. "What're you doing here in London?"
"It's my home," Jack said, raising his voice and revealing the fiercer character which the porter at the Golden Ox had briefly glimpsed. "That's what I want. My home."
"I still got my Bilboa, so don't think I wouldn't use it.
The stranger shook his head, and laughed. "You worried I might have a bone to pick with you, Ma?"
"Aren't you worried someone's going to hang you, Jack?" Having made this bitter speech, she stepped inside the house and closed the door behind her.
"I'm coming back, Ma."
There was no retort from inside the house, merely the heavy clanking of some chains which seemed to amuse the visitor.
"I'll be back tomorrow morning. We'll have a proper chat when I come back."
There is no doubt that Jack Maggs planned to keep his promise, but the morrow held events he could not foresee. Three weeks would pass before he would call at Cecil Street again.
1. "I am an old dog... who has been treated bad, and has learned all sort of tricks he wishes he never had to know" (69), says Jack Maggs. Maggs is a strong man with certain weaknesses. What in his background might have caused the tendency toward romantic fantasy (about Phipps, for example) which is so much at odds with his general clear-sightedness? What makes him violent; what makes him kind and tender?
2. Tobias Oates is possessed of an "unholy thirst for love" (37). How does this thirst shape and rule his life? Does he turn it to a strength or a weakness? Is it this thirst for love that inspires his equally strong thirst for power? Looking at Maggs, Oates reflects that he himself "would be the archaeologist of this mystery; he would be the surgeon of this soul" (52). How is this hubris punished--or is it?
3. Percy Buckle has many admirable characteristics: early in the novel Mercy Larkin says that he is "the kindest, most decent man in all the world" (68). What turns him sour and fills him with hate? What weaknesses in his character allow this hatred to take over his soul?
4. There is much speculation by the characters in Jack Maggs about the "Criminal Mind." Oates thinks that Jack Maggs is an example of the criminal mind, but as the events unfold his ideas on the subject become less and less clear. Has Maggs been made a criminal by his nature, or by his environment? Is Oates, in your opinion, a criminal? What about Buckle, Phipps, Mary Britten, or Tom? Is there in fact any such thing as a criminal mind?
5. Who or what is the "Phantom" that haunts Jack Maggs's dreams? When Maggs dreams that hekills the Phantom (105), what does this fantasy signify?
6. What effect has Sophina's abortion and the loss of their baby had upon Jack throughout his life? Might this loss have inspired Jack's original love for little Henry Phipps? Why do you think he persists in his love for Phipps at the expense of his own children back in Australia? Maggs says that he determined to "weave [Phipps] a nest so strong that no one would ever hurt his goodness" (245). Does Maggs's story imply that such protection is finally impossible?
7. How would you describe Mary Oates: is she really merely "good" and "dull" (181) as her sister sees her? Just how astute is she about her husband? From the time of Lizzie's fatal illness, Mary begins to hate her husband, and this hatred eventually "would penetrate the deepest reaches of her soul and make her into the slow and famously dim-witted creature who was commonly thought not to understand half of what her famous husband said" (292). This sentence implies that earlier, she was neither slow nor dim-witted. What do you think?
8. As a companion piece to Charles Dickens's Great Expectations, with Oates as Dickens and Maggs as Dickens's convict Magwitch, Jack Maggs can be seen as a reflection upon the creative process. Maggs sees Oates's usurpation of his life and thoughts as theft: "You are a thief, " he says; You have cheated me, Toby, as bad as I was ever cheated" (259-61). Is Maggs justified in believing this? If so, is such theft an inevitable part of the creative and transformative process?
9. Maggs is never a "gentleman;" Phipps is. What does this tell us about the class system in nineteenth-century England, and about the author's attitude toward it? What changes were occurring in the class system at that time, and how are these changes illustrated by the novel and its characters? Tobias and Buckle look on Maggs as a servant, themselves as masters: how does Carey subvert this idea? Mercy says that although he had two children of his own, Maggs "had an aim to find a better class of son" (295). Are Maggs's motives really as simple as this?
10. Two of the themes Jack Maggs returns to again and again are those of guilt and shame. For what crimes, real or imagined, do Oates and Maggs feel the most guilt and shame? What betrayals has each of them committed? Is their shame justified? Are there any characters in the novel who seem to be without guilt or sin?
11. Maggs tells Mercy that he was flogged by "a soldier of the King, " to which she replies, "Then it were the King who lashed you" (295). What does Carey mean to imply about the social ills of England, and of the Australian penal colonies? How do Maggs's dreams, in which his Phantom is dressed as a soldier--and the reality in which the miniature he possesses of Phipps, the soldier, turns out to be the portrait of the former King George IV--contribute to the novel's political metaphor?
12. "It would not have been lost on [Oates] that Mercy Larkin's wedding finger was blown away, and that when Jack Maggs came to her side, the pair were finally matched in deformity" (303). What would not have been lost on Oates--what, that is, do the twin deformities symbolize?
13. Oates envisions the end of Maggs's story with Maggs being burned alive in his mansion. Which ending is more artistically appropriate: the one imagined by Oates, or the one Carey actually gives Maggs?
14. If you have read Dickens's Great Expectations, how do the characters of Maggs and Phipps differ from those of Magwitch and Pip, and why has Carey introduced these differences? How do the character and life of Dickens himself differ from that of Oates? What elements of the plot of Jack Maggs could be called "Dickensian"? Does Carey create a particular style for this novel that directly resembles, or echoes, Dickens's style? What are the implications of a contemporary Australian novelist harking back to nineteenth-century English traditions?
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Posted February 19, 2012
I don't know how this book got a 5-star review ... it was a waste of time. Don't bother. Parts were mildly interesting for the time period but overall it wasn't worth my time.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted February 13, 2011
This novel was a great read, it had many twists and turns and I was in suspense every page I turned. It is a great post-modern read and I suggest it to anyone who enjoys a bit of a psychological mystery!Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted March 28, 2006
Jack Maggs is a wonderful-knitted novel. It¿s very sober in style and the accuracy of the prose is crystal-clear. Peter Carey is undoubtly Australia¿s most gifted writing of today, winner of two Booker Prizes and other awards. The story may be boring for some parts, but the prose works, catching your attention again and again. The story itself is very ambitious and worth to read. The descriptions are brief and effective. It¿s a well done read for all.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted December 14, 2010
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Posted January 3, 2011
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