Albert Bonniers förlag, 2014.
Reviewed by Darcy Hurford in SBR 2015:1
Review Section: Fiction
From Sarah Water’s Fingersmith to Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall to Jessie Burton’s The Miniaturist, the historical novel – often long, usually impressively researched – is very much alive. Kättarnas tempel is an intriguing addition to the genre. Set in Regency London, it takes up the story where its predecessor, Aldermanns arvinge (Aldermann’s Heir), left off, with William Aldermann returning to London from his Grand Tour accompanied by his tutor, Josias Gebhardt. Besides inheriting a fortune, William has been brought up to take over his father’s role and revive the Society of Dilettanti, a secretive society that worshipped the classical world and its sexual liberty. To do this, he must find the plans for the ‘grand oeuvre’ that his father concealed in a secret place. This hiding place is discovered in Kättarnas tempel, and the main thread of the novel relates how William, with the help of Gebhardt and others, tries to put the plans into practice.
Håkansson weaves fact with fiction. The Society of Dilettanti actually existed, although not exactly as described here. The same applies to the Dilettanti who feature in the novel, such as Richard Payne Knight and Baron d’Hancarville, as well as William’s near-neighbour William Beckford. It is clear that the historical background to the story has been impeccably researched. Occasionally there seems to be too much detail: for example, when soldiers arrive to close down William’s museum, the reader is told exactly what they wore, who led them, and what their nickname was – none of which feels as urgent as what is happening in the narrative.
Interwoven with the main story are several sub-plots. One of these concerns William’s guardian, Richard Payne Knight, who wishes to distance himself from his Dilettanti past. Others include the political awakening of Jenny Cibber, William’s maidservant, and the religious visions of Mr Carrington, William’s former tutor turned street preacher. There is also William’s infatuation with the architect’s wife Mrs Gell; the way in which his seduction attempt fails points to the inadequacy of his upbringing. He may be highly intelligent and fully versed in Antiquity and priapic rites, but William struggles to understand everyday life, be it how to dress appropriately (at the start of the novel he is wearing his father’s old clothes), rules of etiquette (Jenny accompanies him as an equal although she is a servant), stimulants (an apothecary has to explain to him what opium is) or how to relate to women (the Society, with its phallus worship, seems very much a man’s world). William’s dilemma is a recurring theme: should he follow his father’s plans, or distance himself from them? A third option gradually emerges; to help the oppressed, as Jenny suggests.
There are some great descriptive scenes: William and Jenny’s visit to a tailor; the morning at the stock market after Gebhardt has set events in motion to inflate the price of tea; the horror of the first visitors to Aldermann’s museum. As with Michel Faber’s The Crimson Petal and the White, also set in nineteenth-century London, the grimy underworld is never far away. The difference is that in Sugar, Faber created a likeable heroine who could grip readers for the whole of his long novel. None of the many characters in Kättarnas tempel is entirely likeable: William has fits of rage, Payne Knight is a coward, Gebhardt a cartoon villain, and Carrington a religious lunatic. Jenny Cibber is perhaps the most promising character in the story – but it is revealed that she began a sexual relationship with William when he was only five. While the novel creates a rich world of its own, the lack of a sympathetic protagonist makes it hard to become truly absorbed in it.