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Aldermanns arvinge Gabriella Håkansson, Aldermanns arvinge (Aldermann's Heir)

Albert Bonniers förlag,  2013.

Reviewed by Fiona Graham in SBR 2014:1

Review Section: Fiction, Light-Hearted and More Serious

Håkansson’s masterly novel, set in  Regency London and post-Napoleonic  Europe, is a Grand Tour of sweeping  ambition. A fascinating blend of fiction  and historical fact embracing classicist  aesthetics, rumbustious lowlife and  Enlightenment political thought, it draws  the reader into an enthralling world of  intellectual hedonism.

The eponymous heir, William  Aldermann, is one of a cast of eccentric  and often disturbing figures. His  teenage mother’s agony in childbirth  and her subsequent death cause the  superstitious household servants to  regard the baby as semi-diabolical.  Orphaned at three, the child inherits  old Gideon Aldermann’s vast wealth, the  product of Jamaican sugar plantations,  and his magnificent neo-Classical  mansion, ‘the Temple’, in fashionable  Harley Street. 

But the inheritance extends far  beyond this palatial residence with  its galleries of priceless Greek and  Roman antiquities and extensive  library of classical literature. Gideon  Aldermann was the prime mover of a  strictly fictional version of the Society  of Dilettanti, a secretive, exclusive  coterie of aesthetes who worshipped  the art and literature of the classical  world. More controversially, they also  fomented religious, social, political and  sexual freedom. Gideon Aldermann  leaves minutely detailed instructions  for William’s education, designed to  equip him for a future leading role in  this radical society. He appears also to  have left his son a mysterious ‘Grand  Oeuvre’, consigned to a hidden cabinet  or ‘secretum’, the location of which is  destined to pique the curiosity of those  around William for years to come. 

The novel falls into two parts, the  first of which focuses on William’s  childhood and early adolescence in the  opulent but claustrophobic setting of  the Temple, while the second narrates  his adventures on the continent.  Håkansson conjures up a colourful array  of characters, some of them historical  figures such as Richard Payne Knight,  author of a scholarly work on the cult  of the phallic god Priapus in the ancient  world, the scabrous Pierre Hugues  d’Hancarville, libertine supreme, a Lady  Emma Hamilton gone to seed, and young  William’s idol, Napoleon Bonaparte. She  is particularly successful in depicting  sinister figures such as the tutor Josias  Gebhardt, a former Dilettante hardened  by long years of labour in the salt mines,  and the sordid denizens of London’s  underworld. 

Indeed, Håkansson’s writing is almost  Dickensian in its vivid evocation of the  sights, sounds and smells of nineteenthcentury London. This is an author who  excels in bringing a scene to life in every  detail. Though her knowledge of the  period seems encyclopaedic, she wears  her scholarship lightly; the reader is  rarely reminded that this is a historical  novel. The dialogue rings true and the  omniscient authorial voice sounds  authentically nineteenth-century,  skilfully avoiding the twin traps of false  archaism and obvious anachronism. 

One of Håkansson’s overarching  themes – which some of her Swedish  reviewers identify as a key issue in her  three earlier novels – is the nature of  freedom. Gideon Aldermann and the Society of Dilettanti were supposedly  devoted to the ideal of freedom in  all its facets. But freedom for whom?  Aldermann’s fortune was built on  plantation slavery. Moreover, the  supposed radicals in this novel show  precious little concern for the lot of  servants, workers, the poor or women  – an irony which constantly struck  this reader. The theme of freedom  emerges more convincingly through  young William’s efforts to forge his own  destiny rather than simply fulfilling his  late father’s dictates, a struggle which  seems likely to continue in the sequel,  the eagerly awaited Kättarnas tempel (Temple of Heretics). 

Aldermanns arvinge, rapturously  received in Sweden, is a tour de force  of the storyteller’s art which is likely  to appeal to fans of Umberto Eco  and Donna Tartt. Given its fascinating  portrayal of early nineteenth-century  London – from velvet-curtained salons  to flea-infested taverns – and its highly  original perspective on our cultural  history, it should find a natural audience  in Britain.

Also by Gabriella Håkansson

  • Kättarnas tempel (The Temple of the Heretics). Reviewed by Darcy Hurford in SBR 2015:1.
  • Operation B (Operation B). Reviewed by Tom Geddes in SBR 1998:2.

Other reviews by Fiona Graham

Other reviews in SBR 2014:1

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