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Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Charles Dickens, Sarah Waters, Daniel Defoe and Dan Brown combined: Forlorn Sunset by Michael Sadleir: one of the best books you have never heard of

Readers may recall that Michael Sadleir’s Forlorn Sunset was the mystery read on my recent bloggy holiday. That is to say that I dragged it from London to Beirut and from Beirut to Paris, in a suitcase that was already dangerously close to its weight limit, despite not knowing one single thing about it. As you can see from the picture, it doesn’t even have a front cover to give a hint. Inside the cover, there sits a rather suggestive ink and wash drawing by John Piper. I say “suggestive” because John Piper was an eminent artist of the mid 20th century, and so I wonder whether this book was rather better known when it was first published in 1947. It certainly can hardy be less well known that it is today. I have searched far and wide and can find only the briefest of mentions in the most obscure of sources. There isn’t even a consensus on how to spell the guy’s name: some, including the excellent art historian and biographer Frances Spalding, go in for “Sadler”, but my copy of the book definitely says “Sadleir”.

Oh well. That’s enough wallowing in obscurity. Now for why it is probably one of the best books you have never heard of. This is a novel of the Victorian underworld. It is a gallop through London, but not a London that most Londoners would recognise. This is an organised-crime riddled, iniquitous den awash with the most awful examples of lives wasted and cruelly exploited.

The story knits together the fates of a group of disparate people, high and low, rich and poor, kind and wicked, who are connected by the chance rescue of a child from a mysterious house of abuse in the 1860s. That child is Lottie Heape and it is she, as much as anyone, who forms the centre of this novel. Tangled up in her life there are Vicars and pimps, journalists and soaks, industrialists and pornographers, social reformers and campaigning ladies, brave boys and more than enough nasty pieces of work.

I feel that I should explain the title of this post. Forlorn Sunset is like Charles Dickens because it is a “cast-of-thousands” “portrait-of-a-city” sort of novel. Every character has a history, and what a history that it. I was reminded also of Sarah Waters because Sadleir looks under the carpet of his chosen society – into areas neglected by history. Daniel Defoe gets a mention because there is more than a passing resemblance between his famous lady of the night Moll Flanders (as Nicola Lacey has written “my kind of heroine”) and Lottie Heape. I have mentioned Dan Brown, not because I want to put you off, but because here we have a fast paced muddle to work out with a cliff hanger at the end of every chapter.

This is a cracking story of sin and redemption. It addresses, in a story which never drags and never feels slow, the idea of social evil and individual evil. Sadleir shows in the panorama of his story how hard it is for a person to fight against the circumstances of their birth and how when a society is rotten to the core, it can pull all sorts of unlikely people within the ambit of its rot.

If you are thinking that it sounds a bit gloomy then fear not. For in this book is a clarion call for personal bravery in the face of social convention and what can I say but “hurrah” to that.

Michael Sadleir is also the author of a book entitled Fanny by Gaslight, but don’t let that put you off.


  1. I know who Michael Sadleir is. He was a biographer, primarily, and wrote two that I have read, one of Bulwer Lytton (called Bulwer and his Wife) and one of Marguerite Countess of Blessington (called Blessington/D'Orsay). I spent many years working on a biog of Blessington but never found a publisher -- so I know MS's work well -- and frankly don't think much of it -- full of suppositions and inaccuracies. But this book sounds great!

  2. This sounds fascinating - where did you find it?

  3. What gorgeous pictures - and you're right, someone I've never heard of.

  4. This books sounds utterly fascinating. Never heard of the author but I remember seeing the film Fanny by Gaslight!

    Your trip to Lebanon has whet my appetite. I remember reading about Carol Drinkwater's trip around the Mediterranean and her search in Lebanon for the oldest olive tree. Your photos are great, it must have been a really interesting holiday Hannah.


    PS Sorry to hear you may be leaving France - I know how much you love it there.

  5. Sounds wonderful! I'm also wondering where you came across this one...and I like your new blog background, too.

  6. I've never come across this book before. You've mentioned Dickens and Waters and that's enough to get me interested!

  7. I've never heard of this book before. Your title of the review dragged me in. Sarah Waters and Dickens in one go!!!!

  8. Oh, this is a book I have definitely got to try as I am a huge fan of Waters and Dickens. And really, how could I not try it, what with your fabulously written an persuasive review driving me onwards? Thanks for sharing this. I am off to see if I can grab a copy!

  9. What a treasure you have found. This is the sort of book I would be looking to find in my parent's library and might skip over it because I didn't know anything about the author. It sounds wonderful!

  10. This sounds like the perfect book to take on a camping trip. Only I don't think I can wait until my family's next camping trip, because this sounds marvelous!

  11. Definitely one for Miss Lemon's 'Forgotten Book Friday' pile. She's not at all put off by the mention of Dan Brown : )

  12. Thank you all for all of your comments and I am feeling wretched for having waited so long before replying....

    Harriet - you are the source of all knowledge! Thank you so much for enlightening me. I am interested to hear that he may not have been quite up to scratch accuracy wise as in "Forlorn Sunset" he makes quite a play in his introduction that the background to the novel is well researched, so maybe that would not stand up too well to scrutiny?!

    Bloomsbury Bell - well, now there's a story behind this.... the novel is mentioned in a memoir of Barbara Comyns called Out of the red and into the blue which was reviewed wonderfully by Harriet (above) sometime ago. I was re reading the book after reading Harriet's review and stumbled upon the reference. I had never heard of Forlorn Sunset but soon found a cheap version on Amazon and that was that. I do recommend it heartily.

    Verity - I am so pleased you like the pictures. I have an enormous book about the work of John Piper, so there may be more of that to come....

    Jeanne - oh you are sweet - thank you. The Lebanon was a fabulous place to visit. I recommend if you get there travelling around the country a bit. It is extremely small and there are lots of lebanons if you know what I mean so you see a lot of variation. I have just ordered Fanny by Gaslight and see that it was made for TV - looking forward to reading it very much now!

    Thank you JoAnn - I am getting used to it now and warmed by people saying that they like it - so thanks! For the strange discovery of this novel, see my comment to Bloomsbury Bell above...

    Chasingbawa - it is pretty obscure but it is also cheap on Amazon which in a way is odd... but there you are. I recommend giving it a go!

    Mystica - thank you for reading and commenting. It really did bring both of them to mind.

    Zibilee - I hope that you enjoy!

    Kathleen - *that's the thing* - it is so easy to ignore books when you don't know anything about them and I do it all the time. This time, I'm really glad that I didn't.

    Jenny - yes, I can imagine camping with this. You wil need to take a good night light!

    Elizabeth - Hello! I hope that you find and enjoy it.

    Thanks all so much for stopping by.

    Bon weekend!


  13. Hmmm, well if I ever see it I will definitely pick it up! :)

  14. That book is amongst the many on my bedside table. Especially looking forward to reading it after having read your review. 'Forlorn Sunsets' The mind wanders... X

  15. I loved your review. Hope I can get a copy somewhere!