Thursday, December 22, 2016
The Quincunx by Charles Palliser
"It's all so complicated that I don't know if I can ever make it clear," the old lady began with a droll smile. "My poor head begins to ache when I start to think about it. I believe I understand it until I start to ponder on it and then the explanation goes flying off in a thousand different in a a shower of words: codicils and judgments and instruments and orders and all those other ugly terms associated with the law and Chancery that have cursed our family for more than half a century. . . ."
Basicallly, this quote explains Charles Palliser's The Quincunx in a nutshell. It is a big, fat (781 pages!) historical novel that is the closest thing that I have ever read to a Dickens novel without actually being Dickens; it's kind of like a cross between Bleak House and Oliver Twist with a little Downton Abbey thrown in. In other words, it is EXACTLY my kind of book and I absolutely loved it.
But I'm getting ahead of myself. Set in the early 19th century (I'm guessing 1820s or maybe very early 1830s -- there's no mention of railroads or Queen Victoria so it must be a bit earlier), this is the story of John Huffam, a young boy who is ostensibly the heir to a vast estate, but when the story begins he and his mother, a young widow, are living modestly in a rural village called Melthorpe. The book begins when he's a small boy, and he begins to learn the mysterious history of his family, who are connected to other families fighting over an estate called Hougham (the original spelling of his name). Altogether there are five families involved, which relates to the title; a quincunx is a heraldic figure with four points at the corners and one in the middle, like the five side on a die.
It's somewhat confusing, but years ago, John's great-grandfather secretly entailed the estate in a codicil to his will; meanwhile, his spendthrift son had already sold the estate to another family, the money-grubbing Clothiers. Currently, a family called the Mompessons are in possession, but if young John and his mother die without heirs, the entire estate will be transferred to the Clothiers. John and his mother are living under an assumed name and his mother has the original of the codicil which is her most treasured possession. Everyone involved wants to get hold of it so they can establish their rights to the estate.
Over a period of about ten years, John and his mother are subjected to burglaries, threats, escapes, and schemes to bilk them out of the small income they have, forcing them into worse and worse circumstances in order to force them to give up the codicil. They don't know whom to trust, and things get about as bad as they can be until John finally learns the truth about his family and needs to protect his own life.
This novel is a huge, epic roller coaster of a ride, with lots of 19th century characters: sleazy lawyers, thieves, bankers, servants, and even subterranean scavengers. I loved all the history and atmosphere. It's very like a Dickens novel or a Victorian sensation novel, much like Wilkie Collins or Mary Elizabeth Braddon. Charles Palliser really nails the writing style as well (there are also what I will call alternate spellings of words to keep it in the 19th century style.)
My only quibble with the novel was that it is so focused on the will and the codicil. Even the epic Bleak House had a multitude of side characters that gave the reader a break with some comic relief, but The Quincunx never lets up on John's story with the exception of the history of the families entangled; also, there are so many characters that sometimes I got them confused. There is a family tree in the back at the end of each section, plus a list of characters, but eventually I decided not to worry about which ancestor was feuding with whom, or which marriage they were trying to prevent. I didn't realize until I was nearly at the end there were multiple family trees that filled in as the book progressed (to prevent spoilers, for which I'm grateful) -- another advantage to reading the print book instead of the electronic version, which doesn't include them.
I'm sure if I had taken notes it would all make sense, or if I decide to read it again. (Even Bleak House didn't go into too much detail about the disputed wills; it's just assumed that years ago Jarndyce made a bunch of conflicting wills and it's up to the Chancery courts to decide. Enough). Nevertheless, this is really worth reading if you love a big, fat, Victorian sensation novel. I was recently on a long journey and had time to read in airports, planes, and trains; luckily I was also able to download the e-book on both my phone and a tablet, so I was able to read it in bits and pieces, which was easy since it's 125 short chapters, just like a real Victorian novel. I haven't read anything else by Palliser but I loved this --it's one of my favorite reads of the year and will definitely look for more of his works.