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Mr. Blackwood's Fabularium

Price: £8.99

by Stehen Lycett

It is 1851. A group of excursionists sets off from Canterbury to see the Great Exhibition in Hyde Park. During the train journey, the organiser, Percy Blackwood, invites them to tell stories which he intends to publish anonymously, for unknown to the others he is in serious debt. From the navvy to the lady’s companion, from the bookbinder to the music hall artiste, they all oblige, their stories forming a panorama of Victorian England and offering glimpses into the lives of their tellers. All set off for the Crystal Palace with high hopes, the tales on the outward journey (like the weather) reflecting their buoyant mood. The central section of the book, which is set in the Crystal Palace itself, interweaves fiction and fact, as the Canterbury excursionists respond to exhibits, details of which have been taken from the Great Exhibition catalogue. Whilst characters are entranced by the technical and engineering marvels of the age, others are troubled by shameless materialism of it all, their disquiet finding a voice in the tales they tell on the homeward journey. As one of the clergymen remarks as they sit in an open carriage in the rain: “We went as pilgrims to marvel at the wonders of the age, but we come home as shoppers. Far from being inspired by the power of the human mind, we burdened ourselves with trinkets.”

The book is a kind of reverse Canterbury Tales, in which the excursionists make a wholly secular pilgrimage, starting in Canterbury and ending at the Crystal Palace. It isn’t a re-writing of Chaucer’s tales; in fact, it doesn’t really matter if you’ve never heard of Chaucer at all. It isn’t really a book of short stories either, because the tales the excursionists tell are woven into the conversations they have with each other. There is an overarching structure and the individual tales are designed to contribute to the whole, so that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

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