Saturday, 28 May 2011

Richard Rosny

Continuing the Maxwell Gray project, I just finished her 1903 novel Richard Rosny, which is essentially a family saga focusing on the unhappy marriage of the protagonist, who is forced to give up his promising naval career and go into business to support his extended family.

The book begins with Richard at nine, an only child brought up by his mother Edith in the village of Wimbury. He's initially upset at her remarriage to the apparently OK Horace Belton, but gets over this when they're away on honeymoon; they move to a larger house called The Pines, Richard's favourite half-brother Gerald is born, and Richard grows up without much incident and joins the Navy. Horace, however, despite helping produce Richard's four other half-siblings, goes downhill over the next decade, graduating from just being careless with money via being brought home dead drunk to acquiring an opium habit.

At home on leave at 21, Richard gets a man-to-man talk with Godfrey Belton of the banking firm Belton (Horace's uncle), who warns him the Horace is a financial train wreck.  Richard's own uncle, Adrian Rosny, doesn't disagree. Thus warned, Richard returns to sea. On his return, he gets engaged to Kathleen (Kitty) Musgrave, the cousin of his navy friend Ronald Musgrave. His mum isn't pleased, but ultimately everyone accepts the match. Horace, however, is getting worse. He's started being violent, and spends Christmas sipping laudanum in his den as the rest of the Beltons enjoy a family gathering around the tree. Everyone starts wishing he would just FOAD, especially when Gerald reveals that he has been hitting Edith.

Various younger members of the Belton and Rosny families enjoy a fancy-dress ball, but Richard arrives late in a sulk, saying that he fell off his bike. The day after, he cycles to The Pines, to be greeted by the news that Horace has been found dead in the nearby gravel pit. The coroner says Accidental Death, and the Rosnys go into collective guilt. Godfrey Belton brings Richard worse news; Horace wasn't merely inept with money, but criminal. Due to his embezzlement, Belton, Laking & Co.; and the Rosny family are in major debt. But Godfrey has spotted  Richard's financial aptitude, and argues that it's in everyone's best interests that Richard should leave the Navy and join the firm. Richard meets Kitty on the downs. They've discussed something heavy we're not party to (though this being a MG novel, it's totally predictable that he must have killed his stepfather) and as a result Kitty breaks off their engagement.

Some years later, via a trio of rustic characters, we find that Richard took the offer he couldn't refuse, and has made a success of running Belton, Laking etc. and supporting his family. He's big in ship's biscuits and lifesaving equipment, and has even launched a chain of semi-temperance gastropubs. Now a care-worn 33, he visits The Pines and announces that he is engaged to Evelyn Arbury, the daughter of an old shipmate he met on the river at Richmond.

Richard and Evelyn are married at Wimbury, and they move into his childhood home there. From the start, Richard behaves like a total stiff, and spends all hours working, leaving Evelyn depressed and lonely. Things get worse when she finds Richard hasn't told her the new vicar's wife is his ex, Kitty, and he admits he married Evelyn on the rebound. Not unnaturally, when the charismatic Ronald Musgrave joins the local social set, Evelyn falls for him. Richard is too busy to notice anything going on - he's doing stuff like working and being a hero rescuing people from a shipwreck - but local gossip is thoroughly aware of several meetings between Evelyn and Ronald.

Enter Nancy Rosny, a young academic and relative, who's staying in the area with her professor sort-of-boyfriend Basil. She happens to overhear Ronald and Evelyn making plans to elope. Meanwhile, Richard's old rustic pal Gatrell goes to the mainland branch of Belton, Laking & Co. in "Shackleton" (ie Southampton) and tells Richard about the risk to his marriage. Richard gets on the steamer hotfoot.

Nancy meanwhile has turned sleuth, and shadows Evelyn en route to her assignation, bribing the fly driver so that Nancy gets to the steamer terminus first. There she confronts Musgrave with news of the death of another woman he'd promised marriage to, appealing to his better nature to let Evelyn go. While this is happening, Richard has arrived at the same terminus (he doesn't see them in the fog) and sets off to cycle the 15 miles to Wimbury, where he's devastated to find Evelyn gone. After getting Musgrave off the scene, Nancy intercepts Evelyn, who has been fuming en route as the fly driver removed fictitious stones from his horse's hoof, and persuades her not to leave. The next morning, the two women arrive back at Wimbury with the fiction that they went to a lecture and had to stay over. However, no-one's fooled, and Richard and Evelyn have to do some hard talking, both admitting their grave errors in not being open with their feelings.

At this inconvenient point, Richard gets a note from Gerald, saying "I have found the man". Gerald, in between army postings overseas, has been on a long-standing project to prove Horace's death to be suspicious. He's about to sic the police on an innocent bookmaker, so Richard is finally forced to admit that he did it. (He'd hit him, and Horace being a severely ill druggie, died).  It seems everyone except Gerald already knows. Richard argues that he's atoned many times: losing Kitty, suffering years of guilt, and compensating with bigtime philanthropy. Gerald nevertheless wants to settle it the legal way.

After some months, Richard returns home after six months doing hard labour for manslaughter, and is reunited with Evelyn. They get news that Gerald, estranged from Richard since it all came out, has been killed in the Boer War, but not before sending a letter forgiving him.

Richard Rosny has the whole toolkit of Maxwell Gray motifs: army/navy characters, a family dispute, a drunken head of the family, long-concealed crime, a Mary Sue in the form of the feminist academic Nancy, and a quick visit to the author's then home in Richmond. Nevertheless, I rather enjoyed it. The psychology of the main characters is very well-drawn, especially Richard's gormless state of denial about his poor marriage, and the syndrome of wanting someone dead then feeling guilty when it happens. There's a certain amount of pathetic fallacy - the big confrontation when Ronald asks Evelyn to leave Richard takes place in a storm - but MG has reduced her early habit of excessive purple landscape description.

While the location is less explicit than, say, The Silence of Dean Maitland, this is an Isle of Wight novel. "St Ann's", with its steep streets down to the esplanade and long pier with trams to the steamer terminus, is clearly Ryde.  The description of "Sandycombe" fits Sandown. There's a shipwreck at "Caster Cove" (undoubtedly Puckaster Cove). There's a good description of the Undercliff at what's evidently St Catherine's Point, and general distances and details (e.g. that there's a railway station, and it's about 15 road miles from Ryde) are moderately consistent with "Wimbury" being Whitwell.

- Ray

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