Sunday, August 08, 2010

P is for Performers

P is also for Paddington, the beginning of the title of book 3 in Claire Rayner's 12-volume series The Performers, which traces the rich, dramatic history of two London families from the early 19th century through World War II and after.

I picked up books 1-4 of The Performers when we were visiting my aunt and uncle up in Cadillac, Michigan, a few weeks ago. The Book Nook, a huge used bookstore in the center of town, has been around for decades, and visiting there is always a highlight of the trip. It contains rows and rows of shelves filled with older, out-of-print paperbacks you'd be hard-pressed to find anywhere else besides online. The Performers series has been reprinted a few times since the original publication dates (1973-88) and is currently in print from the UK publisher House of Stratus (who have reprinted a number of older UK historicals; see their website for details). The covers here come from the new editions, though mine are the Fawcett Crest paperbacks from the '70s.

The series follows the Lacklands and the Lucases as they rise from rags to respectability and end up solidly amid the middle classes. Their story begins, in Gower Street, when Jesse Constam, a former street urchin turned wealthy gentleman, decides to adopt a dirty ragamuffin of a boy whose daring and high spirits he admires. An orphan who never knew his real name, the boy is given the name Abel Lackland and grows up in the Constams' household on proper Gower Street alongside Jesse's nervous and eager-to-please stepdaughter, Dorothea. Abel's heart, however, belongs to Lil Burnell, a beautiful young girl from the slums who wants to become a great actress. She uses all she's got to achieve her ambition, reinventing herself as Lilith Lucas, an undisputed star on the London stage known for her wit, charm, and irresistible attractiveness to men.

The next two books, The Haymarket and Paddington Green, continue the saga over the next two generations. I don't want to give away too much of the plot, and the family trees at the beginning of each book reveal only as much as you need to know. There are flawed and full-blooded characters aplenty, and their interpersonal dramas play out against a skillfully rendered backdrop of London's vibrant theatre scene and growing medical community. Through his friendship with Lil, young Abel gets trapped into making secret nighttime jaunts to graveyards in the company of resurrectionists - described with enough creepy gruesomeness to be realistic - which piques his curiosity about human anatomy.

Rayner's dialogue is especially good, conveying the social background of each character through dialect and artfully chosen slang. Expect your vocabulary of colorful expressions and creative insults to increase in the most delightful of ways.

The Performers books are great fun, and even though I've been reluctant to start new series (one of these days I will make it to v.2 of Poldark), I've already read the first three volumes and am looking forward to the next nine. Here's a bibliography, repeated from Fantastic Fiction:

The Performers
1. Gower Street
2. The Haymarket
3. Paddington Green
4. Soho Square
5. Bedford Row
6. Long Acre
7. Charing Cross
8. The Strand
9. Chelsea Reach
10. Shaftsbury Avenue
11. Piccadilly
12. Seven Dials

This marks an entry for the letter P in Historical Tapestry's alphabet challenge.


  1. I do love series, but this one has quite a few books in it. 4, 5, even 6 books is a-okay; but 12 is quite the commitment!

  2. Very true! Fortunately you can stop at any point with these, as each is a self-contained story, and pick up later where you left off if you want. The Poldark series also has 12, and Cynthia Harrod-Eagles's Morland Dynasty has 32 and counting. Now that's daunting... but if you like them, it means more good reading in store.

  3. Sarah, what are you doing to me???

    You know that I can't go past a good series, and that I can't stop reading once I start them. This sounds like a good series too!

    **scuttles off to go check the library catalogue**

  4. Were you able to find them, Marg? I hope so! :)

  5. No. They had some of the Running Years books and some of the George Barnabas books, and not much else. Looking at Fantastic Fiction, she is quite prolific isn't she.

  6. Yikes, Sarah! Please quite tempting me with more H.F, especially series. I was blissfully ignorant of this series and now you had to go and tell me about it. How could you? LOL!

    Well, at least the books don't look as long Cynthia Harrod-Eagles's Morland Dynasty and there aren't as many, but still!

  7. She has another series called the Poppy Chronicles that follows one woman from Queen Victoria's Jubilee through the 1960s. I haven't started on them yet, but have all six books.

    I seem to be the only LibraryThing member who owns Gower Street, so I'm glad I bought it when I did. Mine's a cheap paperback and I didn't think it would be that hard to find.

  8. I remember reading these back when they were new from the library and had forgotten all about them but they were very good.

    I have a big pile of books to read but I may have to revisit this series.


  9. I remember reading some of this series years ago - they are fun!
    Glad you're enjoying them.

  10. A blast from the past :) I remember plowing through all these back in the day, and the Poppy Chronicles, too.

    I don't think I'd have time to tackle them again, though -- it was much easier doing it one at a time as they came out!

  11. Ann, Cat, and Annis - I'm pleased you remember these books! While I'm glad I found them now, I almost wish I'd caught them earlier, since a lack of time discourages me from starting new series.

  12. Claire Rayner is a very interesting person. She was a nurse and is a social activist in support of health care services sympathetic to patient needs. She's also Jewish- an influence which shows in her work, and for many years was an agony aunt :)

  13. I was interested to see on Wikipedia there is no real mention of her books yet she seems to have written so many.

  14. "Agony aunt" is a very British-sounding expression - in the US they're just advice columnists. It doesn't have the same ring to it!

    There's a major Jewish character in book 3 and I'm guessing from the way things are proceeding, that the religious theme will be carried through the subsequent books.

    It is odd that her books aren't mentioned in Wikipedia.

  15. Since my work is about the thirties, that's the volume I'd be most interested in. Twelve volumes!

  16. Strange that Wikipedia doesn't mention CR's books as she's written a heap, including quite a bit of non-fiction. In fact her autobiography, "How Did I Get From There to Here", was quite controversial as she discussed her unhappy childhood, but her recollections were vigorously refuted by her brother. Good old Fantastic Fiction has a list of her work here .

    Talking of Jewish agony aunts, Sarah, have you ever seen Maureen Lipman in the Brirish TV series, "Agony"? She plays a radio agony aunt whose own life is totally chaotic - it's hilarious.

  17. Twelve!! So tempting -- and it's an era I'm fascinated with! Thanks for the review -- and the tip! ;)

  18. Thanks so much for this review! I read a few of these in my teens, and have been trying to remember the relevant details so I can find them again.

  19. Sorry for taking so long to respond - several comments got marked as spam and I didn't notice them in the Blogger dashboard. Annis, I've never heard of Agony (or Maureen Lipman) but it sounds like the kind of show I'd enjoy.

    Audra and Heather, thanks for your comments! I left off reading #3 but need to get back to the series soon...