- The Clopton Hercules by Duncan Sprott
Faber, 220 pp, £13.99, January 1991, ISBN 0 571 14408 X
- Life of a Drum by Carlo Gebler
Hamish Hamilton, 173 pp, £13.99, February 1991, ISBN 0 241 13074 3
- Seventh Heaven by Alice Hoffman
Virago, 256 pp, £12.99, February 1991, ISBN 1 85381 283 8
- A Home at the End of the World by Michael Cunningham
Hamish Hamilton, 343 pp, £13.99, February 1991, ISBN 0 241 12909 5
- A place I’ve never been by David Leavitt
Viking, 194 pp, £12.99, February 1991, ISBN 0 670 82196 9
Duncan Sprott’s The Clopton Hercules is an interesting book, powerfully written, and certainly (indeed, remorselessly) clever: but one-tracked, and self-satisfied. It takes a traditional target, the bizarrerie of upper middle-class Victorian sexual behaviour, and blasts away at it with satirical vigour and relish: but the more points are scored, the more pointless the exercise begins to seem. Here we have, on the sexual front, a priapic squire, his neurotic trapped wife and swarms of lower-class mistresses, his uncontrolled lusts and lunatic outbursts of violence; and on the social front, the squire’s over-reaching ambitions for his family, his ‘meteoric rise into respectability and affluence’, followed, of course, by his spectacular fall (linked, in Dickensian or Trollopian fashion, both to sexual profligacy and to speculation on the railways). The story is based on a true case, that of Charles Warde, and incorporates documentary passages from legal proceedings and newspapers: but its historical veracity is absolutely of no importance. What matters is the rhetorical twist which Sprott gives to the events, the modern standpoint from which he sardonically represents them.
Of particular interest is the impersonal narrator’s voice: with considerable technical skill, Sprott affects a naive jollity which doesn’t (isn’t meant to) fool the reader a bit; the origins, rise and life-style of Charles Warde are detailed with a jocularity and apparent lack of judgment both funny and sinister. At the very point in the story when Warde’s marriage is about to disintegrate, Sprott offers the following picture of the couple at their Stratford home:
One evening in February 1847 Mr and Mrs Warde were sitting reading on either side of a roaring fire in the gilt drawing-room at Clopton House. Their four golden-haired children slept peacefully in their beds. The new baby was in the capable hands of his nurse. There was no sound but the roaring of the fire, and turning of pages, and the steady tick of the magnificent ebony and ormulu timepiece made in Manchester ... From time to time husband and wife looked up. They smiled warm smiles at each other and carried on reading.
What a hollow sham it all is! The ‘roaring fire’ of Warde’s promiscuity is about to devour the scene; husband and wife are going to struggle, in the public arena, for the custody of the ‘golden-haired children’ ensconced in their private haven; the passage of time is going to bring, not the perpetuation of prosperity and stability, but disorder and ruin. Admirably controlled and purposeful though the writing is, however, it is also suffocatingly knowing. Both here and in more openly satirical passages about what Mr Warde was actually up to and the social conditions which (until they themselves are threatened) empowered and protected him, Sprott never relaxes his grip of the reader’s arm. Just before the passage I’ve quoted Sprott depicts Warde, now High Sheriff of Warwickshire, attending the Summer Assizes in all his pomp, listening to the ‘Proclamation against Vice, Profaneness and Immorality’, and dealing out ‘justice’ to his social inferiors, ‘grinning behind his hand’ at the joke which Fortune has played on them and on himself, a joke which Sprott, himself a judge grinning behind his hand, is waiting to reverse. When Warde sees a man hanged for murder he ‘could not help winking at him when he caught his eye’. Nor can Sprott help winking at us.