The Skull and the Nightingale: A Novel


A chilling and deliciously dark tale of manipulation, sex, and seduction in eighteenth-century England

When Richard Fenwick returns to London in 1761, his wealthy godfather, James Gilbert, has an unexpected proposition. Gilbert has led a sedate life in the country, but now feels the urge to experience, even vicariously, the extremes of human feeling: love, passion, and something much more sinister. He asks Richard to serve as his proxy and to write to him of his city ...

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The Skull and the Nightingale: A Novel

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A chilling and deliciously dark tale of manipulation, sex, and seduction in eighteenth-century England

When Richard Fenwick returns to London in 1761, his wealthy godfather, James Gilbert, has an unexpected proposition. Gilbert has led a sedate life in the country, but now feels the urge to experience, even vicariously, the extremes of human feeling: love, passion, and something much more sinister. He asks Richard to serve as his proxy and to write to him of his city adventures—tales of carousing, seduction, and excess. Richard rises to the challenge and delves deep into London's salacious side.

Gilbert's elaborate and manipulative "experiments" into the intimate workings of human behavior soon drag Richard into a vortex of betrayal, where lives are ruined and tragedy is only a step away. And when Richard does the unthinkable and falls in love, the stakes are raised and he must make a defining choice. But what sort of man has he by now become?

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
In order to inherit his fortune, a young 18th-century Englishman must provide his godfather, a staid country gentleman, detailed accounts of his erotic adventures, in Irwin’s debut novel. One could hardly call 23-year-old Richard Fenwick innocent when he returns to England from abroad, yet his godfather’s request that he describe his ongoing sexual conquests and darkest passions begins a series of seductions, indulgences, debaucheries, and betrayals that delineate Richard’s descent into vice and crime, to the voyeuristic delight of his patron. A la Tom Jones, the hero carouses with aptly named characters like Crocker, Horn, and Pike, finds himself in back streets and drawing rooms, and enjoys the occasional tumble in the grass between efforts to win over a particularly virtuous woman. Using language that resonates with the music and manners of the time, Irwin, a Fielding scholar, contrasts pastoral and graphic scenes, proper and pornographic passages, and high-minded theory and base practice. His knowledge of 18th-century social customs, values, and hypocrisies is impressive, but his ardent fantasies are likewise reminiscent of the past: the secret spyhole, the masquerade ball, the jealous husband lurking around the site of his cuckolding, all suggest male-perspective bodice-ripping as much as they reflect the satirical classics whose raunchy romanticism Irwin attempts so earnestly to recapture. Agent: Annette Green, Annette Green Authors’ Agency (U.K.). (Aug.)
Kirkus Reviews
A Faustian bargain drives the narrative in Irwin's novel, but the devil's identity is ambiguous. In this 18th-century treatise of manners and manipulation--think Fielding's bawds and beds--Richard Fenwick has returned from a grand tour of Europe sponsored by his godfather, James Gilbert, wealthy owner of Fork Hill estate. Gilbert assumed care of Richard upon his parents' deaths. He'd envied the elder Fenwick's bonhomie, his willingness to embrace life. Gilbert's own nature was circumscribed and full of unexpected consequences. Now he proposes an intellectual experiment. Gilbert wants to "taste, vicariously, the pleasure of a young rake," and so he offers Fenwick an allowance so that he might pursue all that he, Gilbert, had so feared: "the Passions: Vanity, Greed, Avarice, Rage, Lust...." Thus begins the moral exploration, steps sometimes chronicled via letters between London and Fork Hill, with Fenwick and Gilbert slowly stripping away pretension and pretext. Fenwick is by turns ambitious, hedonistic, lazy, blind to evil and brutal in manner despite perceiving himself of "amiable disposition--certainly neither callous nor cruel." Obviously, Gilbert is Machiavellian, manipulative not only of Fenwick, but also of those to whom he offers patronage, including a failed poet, a lackadaisical scientist and another landowner, a boor whose wife he inveigles Fenwick to seduce. Amid Irwin's spot-on descriptions of 18th-century England's squalor and splendor, the masquerades and dinner parties, this passion play mostly rests between the sheets where Lust lies. Fenwick reports to Gilbert as he beds a promising actress while simultaneously setting sights on Sarah, a childhood companion neglected during his sojourn. Sarah's now married to a stolid diamond merchant whom Fenwick's eager to cuckold. Irwin's secondary characters also fascinate: Horn, more gentlemanly than his loutish tavern-hopping would have him appear; Crocker, grossly obese, rejecting fleshly pleasures for beauty and companionship; and Mrs. Jennings, Gilbert's contemporary, playfully cynical and sardonic. At the end, "the ceaseless reciprocal traffic between the intellectual and animal self" ends in accidental death and a surprising choice. A tale of morals, intriguingly told.
Jenny Uglow
“I really admired and enjoyed it. The atmosphere, idiom and characters are great. The plotting is terrific. And I had a genuine shock at the end.”
Jeremy Lewis
“Richard Fenwick is a dashing, good-looking rake in the tradition of Boswell, William Hickey, Tom Jones and Roderick Random, and his fast-moving adventures among the pubs and petticoats have a twist in the tail that is startling and well worth waiting for.”
Maria McCann
“A dark, compelling tale of an eighteenth-century Faustus and his Mephistopheles, which troubles the reader with a growing unease from the start and never slackens pace right up to its disturbing conclusion.”
Sunday Times (London)
“As Gilbert becomes ever more manipulative, and Fenwick falls in love with another pawn in his patron’s game, Irwin creates an atmospheric portrait of the Georgian world in which this ambivalent rake’s progress takes place.”
Entertainment Weekly
“Evokes Tom Jones, The Crimson Petal and the White, and Les Liaisons Dangereuses. . . . Irwin has crafted a terrific historical novel, and an even better psychological thriller. A-”
Library Journal
Richard Fenwick, a young man without family or means, returns to England after a European grand tour that was financed by the godfather he barely knows. He wonders what his godfather expects of him, and the proposition James Gilbert has for his godson is surprising to say the least. James is a careful man who led a sedate existence; now he wishes to taste some of the wild side of life through Richard's exploits. It quickly becomes apparent, however, that James is not content to observe but rather is a master manipulator whose experiments with the lives of those around him have already led to heartbreak. If Richard continues on this path, more lives will be ruined. VERDICT Set in 18th-century England, this debut novel of manipulation and seduction evokes Pierre Choderlos de Laclos's classic Les Liaisons Dangereuses. The author brings James Gilbert to chilling life and vividly renders the darker side of the Age of Enlightenment. Readers who like their history served up with conquest and betrayal will enjoy this page-turner. [See Prepub Alert, 2/18/13.]—Pam O'Sullivan, Coll. at Brockport Lib., SUNY
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780062202352
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 7/30/2013
  • Pages: 404
  • Sales rank: 965,924
  • Product dimensions: 6.44 (w) x 9.12 (h) x 1.32 (d)

Meet the Author

Michael Irwin is an emeritus professor of English at the University of Kent in Canterbury, where he specialized in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century literature. His published work includes a full-length study of Fielding and essays on Defoe, Richardson, Sterne, Smollett, Johnson, and Pope. He lives in Kent, England.

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