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Passion and Peril in Alternate Victorian England - an Editorial Review of "The Name I Chose"

Updated: Jan 2, 2023

Book Blurb:

A story of passion and peril in alternative Victorian England.

It's the late 19th century. Bold inventions usher in a new age, while genetic and cosmetic sciences reinforce an age-old class system. For the rich, immunity to disability and disease justifies their hold on power. Born disfigured, Mordecai Michaelson has employed his musical talent to rise above a life of poverty. Philomena Paulson appears no less perfect and no more talented than her upper class world requires. But she has secrets only Mordecai understands. Acceptance, trust, and a passion for music compose bonds of forbidden love between them. When chance discovery of Philomena's darkest secret threatens scandal and revolution, she's determined to save Mordecai from the gallows. But Mordecai is just as determined to keep her from social suicide, even if it costs him his life.

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Editorial Review:

The social outcast, Mordecai Michaelson peers around at the glittering gathering set before him, knowing that he can never be a part of it. He is, in his capacity of a lowly piano tutor, present at the engagement party of a young girl he has fallen desperately in love with:

Mordecai looked around at the men puffed up with their own importance, at their sons already melting into plumpness induced by overindulgence in food and drink. Their daughters conversed without listening, while their attention roved the room. These maidens held nothing in common to their mothers and grandmothers. Cosmetics and creams, knives and hairline stitches ensured timeless allure. Barbed strips caught muscle beneath the skin and pulled a face back up to its original position. Light applications of acid burned away wrinkles. Surgeons inserted pliable cushions into the breasts of these ageing Aphrodites, and vacuumed fat from their flaccid arms. Perhaps Mordecai could have stood up straight, slept through the night, and seen the world through the unified vision of matching eyes, but these remedies didn't exist. The science of vanity outpaced the science of compassion, and all sciences catered to an income far above his own.”

This is a dysfunctional love story set in a dysfunctional world. Haviland has painted a picture of a nightmare society based not only on class and wealth but also on appearance and genetic purity. Poor Mordecai Michaelson is unacceptable on both counts as he is both from the wrong strata of society and he is also facially repulsive. His tragedy is that he is in love with a beautiful and highly desirable high society heiress. He knows, however, that the object of his desire, Philomena Paulson, possesses a genetic fault that, if generally known, would place also her, and, indeed, her family, quite beyond the pale.

Young Mordecai [he is only 23] is an exceptionally gifted musician and pianist with a superb ear. His hideous physical appearance means that he cannot hope for public appearances and must instead earn a precarious living as a tutor of the piano. It is in this capacity he is hired as a tutor to Philomena Paulson [herself aged only 19]. As with many if not most of his pupils, the lessons are sterile, rote, and tedious according to graded steps. To his amazement, he discovers that the girl is capable of self-composed music of great complexity and extraordinary beauty. It is then that he falls helplessly and irrevocably in love with her in what can only be a doomed affair owing to the prevailing attitudes and beliefs of the time:

Perhaps, Philomena as he'd known her - shy, sweet, sensitive - had been nothing more than a fair guise concealing an imp who'd chosen him to tease and torment. She rode his shoulder, whispered in his ear, beat the very blood through his veins at her whim, and strode the dark corridors of his mind......he couldn't rid himself of wanting her. He hadn't strength to try. He became dimly aware of his descent but hadn't energy or will to slow his fall.”

But Philomena, to his amazement, furtively and cautiously, returns his love, breathing “I love you” at one point. He makes a terrible accidental discovery: Philomena, who should be perfect - especially as she is now engaged to be married - has an artificial leg. If generally known then this would, in light of the prevailing obsession with genetic perfection, reduce the whole family to the status of pariahs! Under these circumstances how could the proposed marriage to a rich and eligible mining heir end in nothing but misery and grief? It is with these bitter thoughts that this review opens. The ill-matched pair steal a moment together to play music during the Grand Reception. They are discovered by the outraged fiance who, in the ensuing scuffle, discovers the awful truth about his intended. Philomena's ever-vigilant grandmother appears at this point, striking him with a candle holder, killing him outright. Her cry of “murderer” - aimed at the unfortunate Mordecai - brings guests running. In a bid to save him, Philomena pushes him through a window, falling with him, leaving her artificial limb trapped.

There follow a whole series of nightmare episodes for the pair, both individually and together, as Mordecai seeks to elude the law that will surely crucify him on his appearance alone. The popular fascination with phrenology is also sufficient to condemn him, the very shape of his head! - “criminality was a character flow from the middle class down”. The urban landscape they are placed in resembles some Hell out of the imagination of a particularly feverish H.G. Wells. Ostensibly an 'Edwardian' backdrop, there are sinister intrusions such as low-flying helicopters [“hoverbugs”] with roving searchlights and similar strange high technology objects, and the people of London themselves often seem a different species of humanity [like the “Morlocks” in Wells' The Time Machine] when compared to Mordecai's more prosperous clients. It is at least an environment that Mordecai is very familiar with as he flees the Law. For Philomena, on the other hand, much of it is utterly alien and all but incomprehensible. Both Mordecai and Philomena seek refuge in the 'Subterranean' [the Underground] where they separately spend a considerable amount of time blundering around in its' dark tunnels, pressing themselves against the walls as the “omnibuses” thunder by scant inches away. They both also have the opportunity to pause to ponder their present predicaments, their possible fates, and suitable courses of action. They both spend a great amount of time in thinking about the other; Mordecai reflects that if perhaps, he surrenders himself and is sacrificed to the legal process then this would give Philomena the opportunity to escape and even prosper. They think of each other constantly:

Philomena gave preference to reliving the pleasure Mordecai's infrequent smiles had afforded her when they composed together at the piano, her soul frolicked with its sympathetic twin. Despite his physical asymmetry, his form fit perfectly with hers when he embraced her.”

Philomena, for her part, believes what she has heard - that Mordecai had escaped on “the Holborn Line”. She remembers also a story of her father's that this was where 'distressed gentlewomen' went to sell their jewellery. Now dressed in men's clothes, with a self-shorn head, an unaccustomed new limb [that Mordecai had obtained for her], and a pocket full of valuable jewellery, she resolves to find this mysterious Holborn place.

At length, both of them leave “the Subterranean” at different exits, entering into the very cold daylight. Philomena in her new guise of a grimy and very grubby urchin boy has arrived at her chosen destination of Holborn, and Mordecai at a station far from 'the scene of the crime'. Whilst underground he witnessed the fatal mugging of a “Plague Doctor”, one of the many active in attempting to stem the terrible effects of the violent Cholera epidemic now gripping the city. Now, in the clothes and with the identity of the dead man, he, with his unerring sense of direction and his photographic knowledge of the streets of London, sets off for the London Docks a short distance away. Philomena, meanwhile, is encountering Holborn for the first time - tall buildings, horse carriages, crowds of pedestrians, and an aeroplane trailing an advertising banner. She retrieves a newspaper from a waste bin. Mordecai is labelled “the mad pianist killer”. He has murdered an heir to a fortune and has fled with a small fortune in precious stones. He is armed and dangerous. A description follows. She also reads, to her horror and dismay, that her family has removed her to an undisclosed place of safety. She realises that her family would prefer her dead and forgotten, that she has an alternative and dangerous counter-story to the actual events.

Mordecai is in an altogether different and thoroughly grimmer part of London, with descriptions that read like something out of Charles Dickens or an extract from Henry Mayhew's 'London'. There is a nightmarish description of London and the fear of the poor of London of the killer 'King' Cholera. The intelligent and rational side of Mordecai analyses the situation: He is one of the “mavericks” who has linked cholera to the polluted water supply and not to the 'miasma' of bad air:

That this precaution [the use of face masks] so often proved fruitless caused none to abandon it; perhaps hope against hope was another incurable condition. One never saw the populace in better neighbourhoods shielded thus, nor did they suffer in consequence of the omission. Higher classes credited genetic superiority for their unfailing health, Mordecai supposed this an easy perspective to attain within tall houses on high hills surrounded by clean, landscaped thoroughfares.” - To us of this COVID era, this makes for uncomfortable reading!

The only ingredient missing from this particular description is that of a thick green, impenetrable sulphurous London killer fog! The misadventures and the obstacles to surmount for both lovers build up in short order. By now, more than one reader will have realised that what we have here is an excellent screenplay for an equally excellent film. All the necessary component parts are present: romance and love interest, beautiful music, a violent murder, and a chase. What is now required is a Happy Ending where Love conquers All!

This, given the circumstances, seems a highly unlikely proposition. Mordecai, in his guise as a Plague Doctor, finds himself assailed on all sides by desperate supplicants, beating them off with his Doctor's stick. He does, however, in that pestilential cholera-ridden part of London,, commit an act of supreme kindness by bringing consolation and joy to a doomed child [a former star pupil, as it happens], thus earning the reward of an opportunity to rid himself of this country for good. It is a moment of pure Dickensian pathos. He could have boarded a ship but for a strong conviction that the helpless Philomena has found her way to Holborn and is in great danger..... She has and she is, and Mordecai fears the worst:

A fresh young female falls prey to the false motherliness of an enterprising procuress. Houses run by such women aged girls to hags within a few years. Once past her prime, a girl landed in the streets. By day she slept in the streets. By night she plied her trade. She put her earnings towards a dram of rotgut spirits or a night's lodgings. She could afford one or the other, never both at once. All too often, such women threw themselves into the Thames, finding eternal peace in the river's embrace.”

Philomena has attempted to pawn her jewellery, but the suspicious broker, with an eye also on a large reward, has alerted the authorities. She eludes capture by the police only by the skin of her teeth, only to fall into the clutches of a revolutionary group with their own sinister agenda. It is a seeming miracle that the two lovers find themselves together once more, albeit in the midst of a riotous crowd. Of this, and much more, the Reviewer will make no mention, allowing the readers to breathlessly turn the pages for themselves.

The essential and powerfully illustrated central theme of “The name I chose” remains constant throughout, a theme frequently expressed in literature since the early nineteenth century, if not earlier. It is a theme of Dickens, Victor Hugo, and George Eliot - to name but three. It is the tale of a mighty gulf, a chasm, that divides the “haves” and the “have nots”. It concerns itself with the issues of abject poverty and illness and the contrasting wealth, comfort, and ease of the privileged. There is a recurring line in an old English ditty; “it's the rich wot get the pleasure / it's the poor wot gets the blame”. This book very much illustrates the fact along with other writers who have gone before. What Naima Haviland has added to the mix is the more modern and twentieth-century concept and belief of actual genetic superiority and inferiority. Naima Haviland introduces this idea powerfully into this Wells-like nightmare society, adding her own slant to a story well told: The tale of Mordecai and Philomena.


“The Name I Chose” by Naima Haviland receives 5 stars from The Historical Fiction Company

Author Bio:

Naima Haviland writes novels and short stories in various genres, from dark fantasy to light romance. She takes as inspiration the Southeast United States, including the Florida panhandle, an ocean paradise with a not-too-distant past full of eccentrics, explorers, pirates, ghosts, and UFOs.


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