Charles Palliser : The Quincunx.
reviewed by Otto Steinmayer
A quincunx is a pattern of five dots, so---
Mention of the quincunx sends lovers of English literature running to that great and humane writer Sir (and Dr.) Thomas Browne, whose The Garden of Cyrus, or...the Quincunx...Artificially, Naturally, Mystically Considered (1658) joyously traces out quincunxes, as Coleridge said, "in heaven above, in earth below, in deity, in the mind of man, in tones, in optic nerves, in roots of trees, in leaves, in everything!"
Browne had the last word on the quincunx and Palliser ignores him. Instead of Browne's spreading symbol of life and beauty, Palliser gives us a clutch of five families and their quincuncial crests of five roses.
Fair enough. No two writers could have more different aims. Palliser sets his novel in the early decades of the 19th century. His hero, the boy John Huffam, is the last member of an English noble family, deprived of his estate long before he was born by mysterious but criminal means. He is the center of the quincunx. Four other hostile branches of the family surround him and pursue him and his ancestor's will, which if put before the courts could disinherit them and set John back in possession of their illgotten wealth.
Throughout the book's 1200 pages, the will appears and disappears, and John's slender hopes rise and fall as each family struggles to get the upper hand. His life is in constant danger: if there are no heirs to the Huffam estate, it passes to his remote cousins. They do their best to assure there is no Huffam heir.
A purloined will, the disinherited, suits in
Chancery grinding on for
generations, and the schemes of the Arrogant and Powerful---well loved
Victorian plot premises! Other reviewers (who had got to it before I
did and left their grafitti on the back cover) call the The Quincunx a
pastiche of a mid-19thcentury novel. It is a stunning feat. Palliser
brilliantly imagines the English world of the Regency era, a task that
must have cost him years of painful research. The setting of book is
London, Europe's largest city, and a city of extreme contrasts,
astonishing wealth next to the most horrifying poverty and filth.
Palliser meticulously describes the conditions of
the time. The minute
details of social and physical life---dress, houses, the unhappy status
of servants, communication, travel---are a fascinating history lesson.
Money, and the lack of it, drives the book along. We learn much about
the brutal economy of the time.
The Quincunx also differs from the usual
historical novel in that
Palliser writes in the language and style of English writers of a
century and a half ago. He carries this effort down to the details of
spelling: cashmire is "cachemire," glue is "glew," and houses have
"rooves" rather than roofs. He invents pricelessly bizarre surnames for
his many characters: Mompesson, Phumphred, Digweed. I caught him out in
only one anachronism, which I have, alas, lost. Palliser has mined his
original models for phrase and theme. A very quick investigation leads
me to think he owes plenty to Wilkie Collins' The Woman in White, as
well as to Dickens.
Palliser gets very close, but no Victorian
novelist would have written
as he does. The Quincunx
might best be described as a modern thriller
transferred into the past. While the real Victorian novels are in the
main carried on by at least middle class people, Palliser contrives his
action through characters from the lowest levels. He shows the same
interest in professional burglars and sewer-scavengers that modern
thriller writers show in ninjas and secret agents, likewise a
fascination with the technicalities of locks, booby traps, forgery and
Palliser's novel also differs from a true
Victorian novel in its
unrelieved somberness. The London smoke hangs thick. Few likeable
characters live in Palliser's world: John's mother, a cook, an abused
little girl, a pair of ineffectual Radicals, weak and self destructive
in their gullible innocence. The upper-class characters are one and all
moral imbeciles and criminals. Readers who hate lawyers will find much
to relish here. Most of Palliser's low-class characters, servants,
workmen, beggars, thieves, are equally vicious. The poor prey upon the
poor. Betrayal is the norm.
Palliser is crueller to his characters than any other novelist I have read. For example, this is how he engineers the appalling degradation of John and his mother Mary, a process that takes up nearly the first half of the book:
Agents of the feuding families systematically cheat John and his mother out of their savings and turn them out of their home. They go to London, where they find neither employment nor friends. As their little money is claimed by landlords and bailiffs and their clothes and trinkets disappear into the pawnshops, they move to ever more squalid lodgings---one with a man and his wife who turn out to be bodysnatchers. Mary works 16-hour days at sewing, takes to gin, then to opium. At last finessed out of the precious codicil, she becomes a prostitute and contracts tuberculosis. Meanwhile John is kidnapped and sent to a private death camp for troublesome heirs. Even after she dies in what is probably the filthiest room in English fiction Palliser doesn't spare her: an Irish granny strips the rags off Mary's corpse while her son (who has escaped) goes out to arrange a hasty burial in a shallow limepit.
John miraculously survives to the end of the book. His pluck and resource is heroic. But by that time, he has suffered so much starvation and exposure, been so badly beaten and overworked that I feared the first virus he chanced to catch would surely carry him off.
It is a dismal thing to read through 1200 pages
of misery, brutality,
corruption, greed, and loathing, no matter how compelling the plot, how
skillful the description. True, Palliser sets his novel in the most
brutal period of English history, the time before Victoria when the
ruling classes were at their most reactionary. I doubt he exaggerates
the horrors that existed. The
Quincunx is an anti-historical novel,
something to remind us that Ye Olde England was not all Christmas
puddings and jovial dandies like the Johnny Walker Red man. Dickens
painted the evils of his time with equal frankness, but Dickens gives
us something to laugh at, some trace of human sympathy. After reading
through Palliser's catalogue of misery, I felt a profound dismay.
Nineteenth century writers often felt that
society was unjust, and
wrote to shake their readers out of their complacency. Palliser's theme
is dark, one we know well, that society is evil and justice is the most
hopeless of ideals.