The cover of Heap House, written and illustrated by Edward Carey
I’ve always been fascinated by the declarations in Victorian advertisements, from the Carbolic Smoke Ball that cures everything from snoring to ‘throat deafness’, to a medicine called Judson’s Hygiene, a combined and effective Disinfectant! Antiseptic!! And Deodoriser!!!
So many of them boast of strange objects that have disappeared today and so many are about health, in some way battling the great FILTH of London. Reading these advertisements, you feel you’re reading alongside Victorian people and have a hint of what their lives were like. The Victorians so loved THINGS, they were obsessed with objects, they crowded their homes (the middle class that is) with so many THINGS and so many of those things were gloomy and cumbersome and forbidding to more modern tastes. There’s a wonderful heaviness about all that clutter. And it always felt to me as if so many of those Victorian objects in so many Victorian homes were breathing too, that they had little lives of their own. That, and the fact that distant relatives of mine went by the unlikely name of Iremonger, and reading Henry Mayhew’s extraordinary London Labour and the London Poor, really made we want to write a book about a large and grim Victorian family who thrived and were made very wealthy by all the rubbish made by Victorian London, by all the broken and unwanted things.
Edward Carey's illustration for Heap House
I wanted each member of this family to have certain objects that they kept with them always, that they were given at birth by the family’s deeply despising grandmother. This matriarch hands out to one poor infant nothing more than a pencil shaving, to another a toothpick, to yet another a diamond tie pin. These objects in some cases describe the characters, in others defy them, or even in some cases bully them.
Here are a few ~
Pinalippy Iremonger and her doily (I’ve always hated doilies, I find them enraging), so I gave this rather displeasing young lady one.
Some object are very common place, Mary Staggs and her wooden toothpick.
Or, the heroine of the novel, Lucy Pennant with a box of matches.
But some objects threaten, here’s Uncle Idwid Iremonger and his Nose Tongs.
And some are just rather unpleasant. Here’s Umbitt Iremonger and his personal cuspidor (for him to spit into, only his own spit mind, this is no communal spittoon).
The hero of the book is called Clod Iremonger and he holds, mournfully, a universal bath plug which he thinks he hears whispering to him. The bathplug only ever says its name, it says, according to Clod, that it’s called James Henry Hayward.
In the Foundling Museum in London it is possible to see some of the objects left by mothers when they relinquished their new born child. These objects left asmementos, were all that the child could have known of their family (and I believe the Foundling hospital stored them very carefully but never gave them to the child) they include: a thimble, a label with the single word GIN, a button. They have about them the weight of a soul, they are truly heartbreaking. It is almost as if those unhappy mothers had tried to pour all love into those objects, to store it there, so that in some impossible fairy-‐tale ending the love and the relationship between parent and child might suddenly burst out from it like the Jinni from the lamp. Of course they never did, but those objects still speak to us, still move us.
EDWARD CAREY is a novelist, visual artist, and playwright. His debut novel, Observatory Mansions was sold in 14 countries and was described by John Fowles as 'proving the potential brilliance of the novel form.'
The somewhat more lowly VV simply says of Heap House: 'I was entranced by the gothic lure of this novel. It reminded me of Philip Pullman, of Dickens, and of Vivan Stanshall's wonderful Sir Henry at Rawlinson End. Edward Carey has created one of literature's most dysfunctional families.' Please see his brilliant website for more amusement and inspiration.