Norfolk writer’s 21st century take on Victorian literature tradition

Dr Stephen Carver and his wife Rachael, the illustrator, with their Dickensian style early victorian

Dr Stephen Carver and his wife Rachael, the illustrator, with their Dickensian style early victorian novel called Shark Alley. Picture: DENISE BRADLEY - Credit: Copyright: Archant 2016

A Norfolk writer is putting his own 21st-century twist on the serial novel tradition of Victorian times.

For while today we can read the novels of Charles Dickens and other 19th century writers all in one go, many of them were first enjoyed by readers as serials, with the stories being published in instalments, chapter by chapter. Much excitement surrounded some of them, and it was reported that in 1841 readers in New York stormed the wharf when the ship carrying the final instalment of Dickens' The Old Curiosity Shop arrived.

Now Stephen Carver, 52, from New Costessey, has created his own historical novel inspired by the tradition, and each week he is publishing a new chapter online.

His book is called Shark Alley: The Memoirs of a Penny-a-Liner, and his wife Rachael 'Gracie' Carver, 31, is accompanying his words with hand-drawn illustrations adapted from those in early Victorian serials and publications known as penny dreadfuls.

Dr Carver, an academic who previously taught at the University of East Anglia and now works in independent publishing, has created the fictitious writer Jack Vincent as the hero of his tale which centres around the real-life troopship HMS Birkenhead.

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Jack was once part of a rising generation of literary celebrities that included Dickens, Ainsworth and Thackeray before a reversal of fortune saw him scratching a living writing for a penny a line and setting sail on the ill-fated ship which was shipwrecked off the coast of South Africa in 1852.

'This was the Victorian Titanic, and legend has it that the soldiers stood to attention on deck as the ship went down so that civilian passengers could be safely evacuated,' said Dr Carver, who interweaves the story of the ship with a backstory set in Dickensian London.

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'The story is told by a working class Norfolk journalist and Chartist [Jack Vincent] and presented as a 'found manuscript.'

'My goal was to create a fictional character who could be plausibly inserted into the history of 19th-century publishing and politics, interacting with Dickens and his circle and the murkier world of the penny dreadful.'

There are about 50 chapters in the serial. The complete novel has also already been published by Green Door Press and is available to buy for those who cannot wait to read the whole story in the free online series.

Dr Carver is planning two more books in the series.

He said: 'I did it as a triple decker. We have finished book one. The first two are the rise and fall of the protagonist framed by the sea voyage and in book three all the strands join together. I have tried to give it a juicy Dickensian plot – so someone from the hero's past arrives on the ship!'

To read the serial, visit

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