For the Joy of Reading: The Fatal Tree

Welcome to Romeville – where mort or cove, if you would not be a cull, you should be peery of jades and prigs and especially of the prig-napper.

And you probably did not understand very much of that because, like this book, it is written in cant, the language of London’s 18th century underworld.   You will need to make the effort, because this book is too good for you to miss.   It is, of course, much easier to understand if you were brought up in the East End of London, where some of the words are still in use.   And some of the words – gob, jabber, phiz – have entered the common language.   There is also a useful glossary at the back of the book, which is very helpful when you are getting lost.

So why should you read this book.   Well, the tale of Jack Sheppard and Edgworth Bess is one of the great love stories of London, far more exciting that Victoria and Albert or even Elizabeth Bennett and Mr. Darcy.   And that is because it is true.   Jack Sheppard and Edgworth Bess were the Bonnie and Clyde of their time, although they did not kill anyone.  They went on a burgling and gaol-breaking spree that held London enthralled at the time.  They attracted the literary talent of Daniel Defoe to describe their crimes.   They gave a glamour to the criminal underworld in London that was exploited by the Krays and the Great Train Robbers in my own lifetime.   Jack Sheppard was the original Jack the Lad, and Edgworth Bess was possibly the model for Moll Flanders.

Then you have Jonathan Wild.   He was a true life villain to rival Fagin, but he played both sides of the law to his own advantage and profit.   Jonathan Wild, of course, was notorious as the infamous Thief-taker General, the man who had the occasional underling in his gang hanged, to encourage the others.   And one of the central characters is Romeville, London itself, with its whores and thieves and pickpockets, its taverns, theatres and mollyhouses.   I, as a graduate of the LSE, particularly liked the fact that Jack Sheppard’s mother lived in Clare Market.

If this all sounds to you like “The Beggar’s Opera” that is because John Gay based his play on the lives of Jack Sheppard, Edgworth Bess and Jonathan Wild.   Gay is one of the characters in this book, taking us by the hand and walking us through the streets of London.   It really has not changed that much.

Jake Arnott gives us a rollicking yarn, told from the point of view of Edgworth Bess.   All the historical accounts have blamed her for seducing Jack Sheppard into a life of crime, making her the femme fatale.   Arnott gives us a story that is not as simple as that.   The fates of Jack Sheppard and Jonathan Wild are a matter of historical record, but I am not going to spoil the book by telling you what happened.   Edgworth Bess disappeared from the historical record.   You must decide if Arnott’s reason for that works for you.   It does for me.   I will say no more.


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