Philip Pullman as history teacher: the Sally Lockhart novels

History is about stories, and Philip Pullman knows how to tell a good story. Before he became famous for the fantasy young adult novel The Golden Compass (original British title: Northern Lights), Pullman published a series of historical mysteries for young people set mainly in 19th century England and centered on a young woman named Sally Lockhart. I love these books for their appealing characters, exciting plots, and vivid descriptions of Victorian London’s seamier side, from opium dens to sweatshops. Lockhart is a strong and compelling heroine: brave, smart, resourceful, and determined. Over the course of the series we see her mature from a teenager to a young mother, whose understanding of her own circumstances and the social realities around her gradually broadens and deepens. This means that young readers of the series can develop a fuller sense of the historical period as they move from book to book.

Here’s a good synopsis of the series from a thoughtful review on Pessimisissimo’s blog Exotic and irrational  entertainment:

Photo of women selling flowers on street

Covent Garden Flower Women, London 1877

“In the first Sally Lockhart title, The Ruby in the Smoke (1985), the heroine is a 16-year-old in late Victorian London. As the book opens she is trying to learn more about the death of her father, Matthew Lockhart. Matthew was a shipping agent who drowned when his company’s schooner was sunk in the South Seas with the loss of (almost) all hands, leaving Sally orphaned and virtually penniless. Sally’s investigation brings her into contact with a gritty underworld of opium dens, brothels, East End slums, and street gangs.

“It also brings her into contact with the legacies of British colonialism: the military occupation and exploitation of India, and the forced opium trade with China. (It soon becomes clear that the ruby of the title is derived from the former, while the smoke derives from the latter.) The later books in the series deal with the arms trade (The Shadow in the North (1986)), Jewish immigration and 19th-century social and labor movements (The Tiger in the Well (1990)), and great-power conflicts over resource-rich smaller countries (The Tin Princess (1994)). But while the books are firmly grounded in the grim realities of 19th-century capitalism and imperialism, they are also ripping yarns featuring criminal masterminds, powerful industrial magnates, international spies, and other fiendishly evil nemeses for Sally.”

This is not fictional realism in the sense of, say, Johnny Tremain. The Lockhart series gives us a lively and believable picture of England in the 1870s and 1880s – from seances to socialist debates, from women’s lack of legal rights to the Victorian theater – but it’s all blended with over-the-top adventure and characterizations that are sometimes larger than life. Pullman himself has described the books this way:

“I wrote each one with a genuine cliche of melodrama right at the heart of it, on purpose: the priceless jewel with a curse on it – the madman with a weapon that could destroy the world – the situation of being trapped in a cellar with the water rising – the little illiterate servant girl from the slums of London who becomes a princess…And I set the stories up so that each of those stock situations, when they arose, would do so naturally and with the most convincing realism I could manage.”

Pullman approaches this challenge with a sense of fun and irreverence that makes for some great reading. Here’s a moment from The Shadow in the North when Jim Taylor, one of the series’s main characters, is talking with a barefoot child in front of a stinking boarding house:

Photo of boys buying ices from street vendor

Halfpenny ices, London 1877

“She took the fish out of her mouth again, looked at him steadily for a moment, and then released a flood of the filthiest, richest, ripest, fruitiest, foulest language Jim had ever heard. It went on for an uninterrupted two minutes and a half, without repetition. He, his face, his manners, his ancestry, his clothes, and his mind were compared unfavorably with parts of his body, to parts of other people’s bodies, to parts of animals’ bodies, to the stink arising from dead fish, to boils, to intestinal wind, and to several dozen other unpleasantnesses. Jim was completely taken aback, and that didn’t happen very often.

“He put his hand in his pocket.

“‘Here,’ he said, holding out a sixpence. ‘You’re a virtuoso, you are. I never heard such talent.’

“She took the sixpence—whereupon he swiped her around the head and sent her sprawling.

“‘But you want to be quicker on your pins than that,” he added. ‘Cheerio'” (page 117).

It’s all the more satisfying that the kid in this scene ends up having the last word.

Sally herself is quite unconventional by Victorian standards, having been brought up and schooled by her father, a former army captain. As Pullman summarizes, “her knowledge of English Literature, French, History, Art and Music is non-existent, but she has a thorough grounding in military tactics, can run a business, ride like a Cossack and shoot straight with a pistol.” She has her share of doubts and uncertainties, but also an essential toughness that, when need arises, helps her stand up to pompous lawyers or intimidating street thugs. Here she is in The Shadow in the North berating her landlord’s clerk after her office files have been confiscated:

“‘You allowed police officers into my room to take away my property – you didn’t ask for a receipt – you didn’t see a warrant. This is England, did you know that? You have heard of a search warrant, I suppose? How do you know these men were really police officers?’

“He banged the desk and stood up, shouting, ‘I will not be spoken to like that by a common prostitute!’

* * *

“She looked him up and down, from the red spots on his thin cheeks to the papery knuckles clutching the desk.

“‘I’m ashamed of you,’ she said. ‘I thought you were a businessman. I thought you could see straight and deal fairly. Once, I’d have been angry with you – but now I’m just ashamed.'”

“He said nothing as she turned and left” (pages 249-50).

By this time, Lockhart has carved out a niche for herself as a financial consultant, which is presented as an extraordinary but achievable feat for a woman in 1880s London (a time when there were just beginning to be female physicians, for example). Later, as an unmarried woman, she raises a child on her own. This flouts not only Victorian rules of respectability, but also modern literary conventions. In young people’s adventure stories today, strong female characters are still depressingly rare, but mothers having adventures -– as opposed to just taking care of people, or dying -– are almost nonexistent. (The only other example I can think of is Robert C. O’Brien’s Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH.) For my money, the scenes in The Tiger in the Well of Lockhart on the run and in hiding with her toddler daughter –- worrying whether they’ve been discovered in one moment, and whether the child has a fever or will wet the bed in the next –- are some of the best in the series. This is realism of a sort that very few adventure story writers even consider.

Another thing I enjoy about the series is the feeling of historical progression between the first three novels (setting aside The Tin Princess, which is great fun but something of a postscript). Although the time span is less than a decade, it’s as if Pullman is moving between historical eras and to some extent genres. The Ruby in the Smoke is steeped in Victorian-era exoticism a la Sherlock Holmes stories such as The Sign of the Four: the 1857 Indian mutiny, the opium trade, a sinister Chinese criminal organization with a colorful name, a hidden treasure. The Shadow in the North deals with spiritualism and clairvoyance but also more modern themes: industrial production, powerful capitalists, and the rise of military technology foreshadowing World War I (with just a touch of steam punk). By The Tiger in the Well, we could almost be in the 20th century, with mass immigration, organized antisemitism, and socialist organizing all central to the story.

This progression from exoticism to modern social concerns is bound up with Lockhart’s experience of growing up and learning about the world. For example, poverty is a major theme running through all of the stories, but there is a big change in how Sally –- and we as readers –- see it. In The Ruby in the Smoke, poverty is something scary and ugly and often sinister, but it’s also just a part of the landscape –- it’s simply there with no question of why or who it serves:

Photo of group of people on sidewalk

London street scene, 1877

Lodgings, in the East End, is a word that covers a multitude of horrors. At its worst, it means a room steaming with damp and poisonous with stench, with a rope stretched across the middle. Those far gone in drink or poverty can pay a penny for the privilege of slumping against this rope, to keep themselves off the floor while they sleep. At its best, it means a decent, clean place where they change the linen as often as they remember. Somewhere in between, there is Holland’s Lodgings. There, a bed for the night would cost you threepence, a bed to yourself fourpence, a room to yourself sixpence, and breakfast a penny. You were never alone at Holland’s Lodgings. If the fleas disdained your flesh, the bedbugs had no snobbery; they’d take a bite out of everyone” (page 21).

Two books later, in The Tiger in the Well, Sally comes to look at poverty as a condition that’s imposed on people — by factory owners who pay them too little for back-breaking and mind-numbing work, landlords who charge them too much to live in filthy and unsafe homes, and others with wealth and economic power. Accompanying the director of a settlement house, she visits a family of matchbox makers:

“It was a family of five: father, mother, two daughters in their teens, and a sick little boy of seven all crammed into a room no bigger than twelve feet by eight. The boy lay on a mattress in a corner, scarcely breathing. The rest of them worked around a table in the dingy light from the window. The air was thick with the smell of sickness, of sweat, of fish, of glue. The family’s hands moved without ceasing, pasting strips of wood to strips of magenta-colored paper, standing them on one side to dry, then folding them into matchboxes. One of the daughters, a bright, rebellious-looking girl, was tying bundles of completed boxes together. They got twopence farthing from the factory for every twelve dozen boxes they made, said the father…. Furthermore, they had to buy their own string and paste. By working all the hours of daylight and late into the night, they could make just enough to keep starvation at bay” (page 218).

Up until this point, Lockhart has comfortably thought of herself as a capitalist, having worked hard to establish her financial consulting business. But now, “she began to wonder how many clients she’d advised to buy shares in Bryant and May’s, the match manufacturers. Why, she owned some herself” (page 219).

There’s a lot more I could discuss about the Sally Lockhart series — such as Pullman’s use of political allegory and whether the books helped to inspire Laurie King’s Mary Russell mysteries — but this review has probably gone on long enough. I’ll close by cautioning adult caregivers that the series has a lot of violence, open presentations (in Tiger) of both anti-Jewish bigotry and socialist radicalism, and various frank (but non-graphic) references to sex. As Pessimisissimo writes, “if you give the books to a 12-year-old, be prepared to face some interesting questions.”


Philip Pullman’s website

The Sally Lockhart mysteries:

Photo Credits
All photographs in this post are from John Thomson and Adolphe Smith, Street Life in London, 1877. London School of Economics Library, SR 1146,