“But do not be like one of those cold, calculating men who know much and in consequence, believe others to be of lesser worth. Acquire knowledge and understanding of the world and also of your neighbour, not for what it may bring in worldly goods, but for its own end.”
Some Rise By Sin, by Siôn Scott-Wilson, is historical fiction set in 1829 London. Told from the point of view of a young man named Sammy, it focuses on the hardships faced by those who possess scant assets and capital, who must scrape together a living by whatever means available. Sammy works with Facey, a friend from their shared childhood in Portsmouth. With help from a network of friends, informants and labourers the pair steal freshly dead bodies from graves to sell to wealthy men with an interest in anatomy. These grave robbers are known as Resurrection Men.
The story opens with a heist that, unbeknown to Sammy and Facey, will lead to a great deal of trouble. Amongst the poor and struggling there are those who would wield power through violence, raising themselves up by crushing any who threaten their nefarious business dealings. Sammy and Facey are well aware of who to steer clear of but cannot always avoid coming under the radar of those with eyes across the city’s underworld. A mistake can lead to brutal punishment, sometimes death, and the authorities have little appetite to investigate.
The tale told focuses on those living hand to mouth existences, who must do jobs such as: collecting faeces for tanneries and vegetable gardens, running errands, transporting goods on handcarts, begging from those passing by on the streets. In the background are the wealthy, most of whom care little for the labourers and scavengers who they regard as no better than animals. As in any strata of society, some are capable of kindness but there are also many users and ne’re-do-wells.
The first half of the book sets the scene, bringing to life a dark and vicious London barely imaginable to the privileged of today. Descriptions are sordid and explicit, capturing the stench, gore and violence. The rich men who feature are a mix of callous and condescending. Those who mean well often conflate poverty with ignorance. The author’s character development is impressive, the sense of place key. Although a somewhat slow read in places, details add depth and are there for a reason.
Around the halfway mark the pace of the plot picks up markedly. There is a chase scene that crosses the city, almost descending into farce but adding welcome elements of black humour. From here the tension is retained, the reader becoming more invested in outcomes as characters’ mettle is tested – sometimes in what may seem foolish confrontations. The brutality continues but the pulling together of threads – kick-started by one key section of expository dialogue – makes sense of the inclusion of previous descriptions. I was left with questions but these did not detract from the page-turning race to the ending.
Notably, there are few female characters with only one fully developed, who also serves as a love interest for Sammy. This was a time when death was common – from violence, illness, infection and childbirth. The precarious healthcare of the time is explored within a thread, as is the means of survival for children left without parents. Poor men lived through their wits, fists and dubious morality. If those featured sought women this is not mentioned.
For readers who cannot bear mention of animal cruelty, be aware this is graphically described – a reflection of the times portrayed. Entertainments often involved watching the deaths of fellow creatures, with betting on outcomes amidst heavy drinking. The book opens with a dog being cruelly punished for theft and this is accepted as fair.
In amongst the stench and dirt there are good people, although also many who will place acquaintances in danger when offered money for information. The law exists only for the gentry – one scene brings to life the flawed reasoning for this. Justice for any is rare, predicated as it is on protecting wealth and status.
The tale told provides a strong depiction of an historical period focusing on the paucity of lives being lived day by day rather than on aristocratic marriage machinations, politics or national affairs. Although not always a comfortable read this is due to the realism. As well as offering a strong story featuring goings on many may not have been aware of, it is a timely reminder that if an underclass exists without redress to legal protection, they will seek to survive by whatever means they feel necessary. For those who derided the pomp and inaccuracies of escapist Bridgerton – set in a similar time period – this antithesis may be right up their street.
My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Deixis Press.