The Victorian Era in England at the height of the British Empire was a time of tremendous expansion. Public morals were strict, yet many Londoners lived in the grip of poverty and crime, especially prostitution. Charles Dickens depicted the harsh lot of the poor in his novels, populated with unforgettable characters. Sara Stockbridge obviously admires Dickens, and in many ways her GRACE HAMMER, A Novel of the Victorian Underworld is a tribute to him. Grace, a single mother who lives with her four children in London’s East End, is an avid reader, a good mother, and keeps a tidy home. She also happens to be a thief, notably a pickpocket, and is initiating her children into the family business.
Much of the novel’s plot revolves around Grace’s involvement with the handsome and charming but fickle Jack Trallis. But Grace has a secret that presents a grave danger to her and her children. She has stolen a precious necklace from another thief, Horatio Blunt, and he has vowed to chase her down and make her pay. Tipped off to Grace’s whereabouts, Horatio searches the East End for her, leading her to flee to the countryside with her children where they become embroiled in a nail-biting adventure.
Stockbridge manages to convey the tone of Victorian prose in an economical way that engages the contemporary reader. In place of long descriptive passages, she is able to capture the mood of a scene in a single sentence. Yet her writing is quite sensual, conveying the sights, sounds, and smells of Whitechapel, as Grace frequents public houses and worries about her friends, the ladies of the night, who are being brutally murdered by a vicious serial killer. (The only quibble this former English teacher has with Stockbridge’s writing is her disconcerting habit of switching tenses mid-paragraph.)
If one sign of a skillful novelist is the ability to create memorable characters, Stockbridge succeeds. Grace, Jack, and little Daisy lived on in my mind after I closed the book for the last time, while Miss Emmaline Spragg may well pop up in a few nightmares.
Audrey L. Vest is a retired book editor and English teacher who loves to read about the Victorian era.