Sweet Water Grapes begins with an "Epilogue", painting an idyllic scene in 1878 on an upper-class country estate, Roxall Court, as the young Lady Alice Burgoyne and her family await the return of her husband, Sir Arthur Burgoyne, from a business trip in Australia. The "sweet water grapes" refers to a vine planted at Roxall by Sir Arthur, who harbours an ambition to set up an English vineyard. It is all perfection, and a visitor comments, "There is no tragedy in the Burgoyne book.".
There soon is. The viewpoint switches to the 30-year-old Sir Arthur Burgoyne, en route home on a sailing ship crossing the Pacific. During a storm, the ship founders, and he and another passenger, Redmayne, are cast ashore on an uninhabited tropical island. Able to rescue tools and provisions from the wreck, they set up home there, and remain unrescued for thirty years. Redmayne dies of a heart attack, and Burgoyne suffers a mental breakdown, after which he is picked up by a merchant ship, only to spend another decade as an indentured farm labourer in Mexico. Finally, the sight of a young mother and some grapes triggers a dormant memory, and he regains sufficient sanity to make his way back to England - in November 1918.
The now-elderly Burgoyne suffers total culture shock. He has never seen an aeroplane or motor car, and is shocked by the shabbiness of a post-war London with no horses and unisex clothing. His only pleasure is the thought of returning to Roxall to be reunited with his family.
He gets to Roxall village to see bunting out for a celebration, overhearing that it's to commemorate the return of the master of the house. He wonders how this was known, but when he gets to Roxall Court, he finds it's actually for the return of Sir Gerald Burgoyne, his grandson, from the war. He makes himself known - and is immediately assumed to be an impostor, particularly by the new Lady Burgoyne, Arthur's late son's widow. His wife Lady Alice is long dead, as are two of his sons and most of his friends; his two surviving children, Cecil and Alice, are away.
He is temporarily accepted as an eccentric, possibly harmlessly insane, house guest pending further investigations. All his knowledge of the family is treated with suspicion, as is his inability to say much about Mexico. The only person immediately convinced of the truth of his story is the aged sexton of Roxall. As time passes, however, more and more people are convinced, notably Lord Orpington, a university friend, and a Mrs Gervase, who was Redmayne's fiancé. Lady Burgoyne remains hostile, however, and controversy continues to be rife in the village.
Burgoyne has a major shock when he visits Roxall graveyard and finds that his Alice remarried. Feeling betrayed, and generally dismayed at the complications his return has caused (for instance, the problem of the ownership of the Roxall estate) he decides to leave. He borrows £100 and goes to London, where he tries to commit suicide by exposure, trudging the streets in the rain until he collapses with pneumonia.
He wakes from a coma to find that he has been finally acknowledged as the long-lost Sir Arthur. His son Cecil, now a top politician in Australia, is at his bedside, and takes him back to Roxall Court, where he meets his daughter Alice, who has been recovering in a nursing home after crashing from overwork as a VAD in the war. As his health improves, he is gratified to be offered a glass of Roxall Chablis; although his vine never took off in England, Cecil hybridised it, and now produces from its descendant an excellent Australian wine named in honour of its origin.
Recovered and reinstated, Sir Arthur lives out productive last years, setting up a semi-temperance pub in Roxall village. Although still disappointed at the ongoing changes in England, he finds solace in his family, and gets to see his baby great-grandson before dying peacefully while talking to his daughter.
The Times Literary Supplement said of the story:
The author has laid her opening scene in an English country house of the Victorian age and touched in the essential details delicately. The character of Burgoyne, a man of wealth and ardent ideas, is well conceived. But when, after his pitiful experiences, he returns to a changed world, he himself seems to have suffered some transformation too—to be no longer a human being, but a shadow, so that his subsequent adventures have little power to stir sympathy, especially as now and again an uneasy suspicion arises that the contrast between the two ages is being forced for the reader's good.
- TLS, May 24, 1923It's hard not to agree with the conclusion. The device of being marooned for decades is essentially a time machine, and the story is, at heart, an elegy for the Victorian age. As I've said before, MG became increasingly reactionary as she aged, and gave away her many dislikes about the social and technological changes at the close of the 19th century a number of times, both in her fiction and as polemic, notably the 1902 "A Plea for the Silence of the Novelist". Nevertheless, the story has an interesting premise, with strong allusions to that of the return of Odysseus.
For some reason - probably because I'm not a wine aficionado - I'd never come across the term "sweet water grape". I find it's an older name - one of a vast number of synonyms - for the classic aromatic wine grape variety Chasselas.
It's always tempting to try to identify the setting of Maxwell Gray works. Sweet Water Grapes is set largely on the English rural south coast, and while some of the details don't fit (Arthur takes a direct train to London), it looks inspired by the southern Isle of Wight. The name"Roxall" naturally recalls Wroxall (in fact "Roxall" is an old spelling of the name), and the motif of Sir Arthur's experiments in viniculture very much resembles the story of Sir Richard Worsley, who attempted to establish a vineyard at St Lawrence at the end of the 18th century (for a contemporary account, see Section XXI of General view of the agriculture of Hampshire, including the Isle of Wight, by Charles Vancouver, Board of Agriculture).
Since the 1960s, Isle of Wight wine has become a well-established industry, though not using Chasselas grapes; the well-known Adgestone Vineyard, for instance, uses Müller-Thurgau, Rondo, Seyval Blanc and Reichensteiner, all hybrids that are more comfortable in cooler climates than Chasselas.