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The Man Who Laughs is a romantic masterpiece of a man whose face has been disfigured into a laughing mask in childhood, the loyal blind girl who gives him her heart, and the cruelty of the privileged aristocracy whose laughingstock and saviour he becomes, is remarkable in its emotional impact. But do not be deceived. The timeless trope of Beauty and the Beast is redefined here, for surfaces are misleading, and not everything is as it seems. The slow-paced, stately richness of descriptive detail is reward in itself for the reader looking for delicious immersion in the drama of history, but coupled with the depth of human insight, and the glimpse into a historical era and mindset, this is a timeless classic.
An obstinate north wind blew without ceasing over the mainland of Europe, and yet more roughly over England, during all the month of December, 1689, and all the month of January, 1690. Hence the disastrous cold weather, which caused that winter to be noted as “memorable to the poor,” on the margin of the old Bible in the Presbyterian chapel of the Nonjurors in London. Thanks to the lasting qualities of the old monarchical parchment employed in official registers, long lists of poor persons, found dead of famine and cold, are still legible in many local repositories, particularly in the archives of the Liberty of the Clink, in the borough of Southwark, of Pie Powder Court (which signifies Dusty Feet Court), and in those of Whitechapel Court, held in the village of Stepney by the bailiff of the Lord of the Manor. The Thames was frozen over—a thing which does not happen once in a century, as the ice forms on it with difficulty owing to the action of the sea. Coaches rolled over the frozen river, and a fair was held with booths, bear–baiting, and bull–baiting. An ox was roasted whole on the ice. This thick ice lasted two months. The hard year 1690 surpassed in severity even the famous winters at the beginning of the seventeenth century, so minutely observed by Dr. Gideon Delane—the same who was, in his quality of apothecary to King James, honoured by the city of London with a bust and a pedestal.
One evening, towards the close of one of the most bitter days of the month of January, 1690, something unusual was going on in one of the numerous inhospitable bights of the bay of Portland, which caused the sea–gulls and wild geese to scream and circle round its mouth, not daring to re–enter.
In this creek, the most dangerous of all which line the bay during the continuance of certain winds, and consequently the most lonely—convenient, by reason of its very danger, for ships in hiding—a little vessel, almost touching the cliff, so deep was the water, was moored to a point of rock. We are wrong in saying, The night falls; we should say the night rises, for it is from the earth that obscurity comes. It was already night at the bottom of the cliff; it was still day at top. Any one approaching the vessel’s moorings would have recognized a Biscayan hooker.