Home ➨ Slightly Foxed - Grave Expectations
Some people bring wine to dinner. Some bring dessert. My friends bring books, which is, I suppose, why they’re my friends. One night, a ‘friend’ – I use the term loosely – cast a cloud over my life of unmolested tranquillity by presenting me with The Quincunx by Charles Palliser. (A quincunx is a group of five objects arranged so that four form a square and a fifth sits in their centre, as on a set of dice. I had to look it up too.) A master of the soft sell, he simply said, ‘Got this at a jumble sale. It’s kind of Dickensian. Right up your street.’ Then, rather than handing it to me, he placed it on a table and backed away, as if he had lifted a family curse by passing it on to the innocent.
The Quincunx is ‘kind of Dickensian’ in the same way that the Taj Mahal is kind of a nifty tomb. Even the name of its central character, John Huffam, is lifted from Palliser’s great inspirer, Charles John Huffam Dickens, but so to describe The Quincunx is almost to belittle it. At more than twelve hundred pages, perhaps half a million lovingly conjured words, it is as long as anything penned by Dickens, with a wheels-within-wheels complexity that Dickens, Wilkie Collins and Conan Doyle together could not have bettered. (Thankfully, there are genealogical charts, maps of early-nineteenth-century London, a glossary of over a hundred proper names, and even a note on currency.) In addition, Palliser paints his characters with a subtlety of touch and linguistic exuberance that would have made Dickens glad to call them his own. Here we meet Mr Pentecost:
His face, which wore an expression which I can only describe as one of indignant good humour, was red-cheeked and adorned by little half-lens eye-glasses above which bristled a pair of very bushy eyebrows that gave his physiognomy an expression of permanent surprise. His appearance did not efface but recorded the history of his dressing: a neckerchief carelessly tied, stockings ill-matched, and the act of shaving ill-completed. His stained and patched coat was covered in a fine powder and when I knew him better I understood that this was because of his habit, on becoming passionately eloquent on a subject as he often did, of throwing rapid pinches of snuff in the direction of his nose so that it flew about him like a golden mist. He wore an ancient wig which somehow always contrived to get turned round so that the queue hung over one ear, impairing the tenuous dignity of his appearance still further.
With its lush stylistic narrative, linguistic precision, long, flowing subordinate clauses, so sadly uncommon in this age of drab, staccato, Hemingwayesque prose, The Quincunx would have sent Henry James off to burn his unpublished manuscripts in quiet despair.
The blurb on my copy states that the novel was twelve years in the writing, and I can believe it. It is a multi-family multi-generational saga swirling around a lost will, a stolen codicil and John Huffam, a mollycoddled, self-centred child who enters life unaware that he may be the heir to a fortune, and that the death of both him and his mother, a beautiful, kindly, fragile milksop of a woman not unlike David Copperfield’s Dora, would allow relatives of doubtful virtue, most of whom are unknown to him, to retain their vast inherited wealth, which is rightly his. We meet Our Hero first at about the age of 5, and, seeing the world through his eyes, are given the missing pieces of the family story only when they are revealed to him, as he sheds the naïvety and ignorance of his childhood. There are also occasional chapters that provide us with a glimpse of the Face of Malevolence lurking in the shadows.
Our journey begins with an interview between Equity and Law, who will later become better known to us but who are introduced as allegorical figures, much like Ignorance and Want standing beneath the robe of the Ghost of Christmas Present. We are immediately plunged into the world of Regency England.
Let us imagine that we are standing, on a wintry afternoon some years ago, in the west-end of Town. The dusk thickens, rendering even gloomier that great prison-house of fashionable society, so that all those grim and lofty streets and squares seem in the gathering mist to be riding at anchor like so many aristocratic Hulks designed for the detention of Society and its transportation to the waste shores of fashionable boredom. The grimmest and gloomiest of all of them is Brook-street. The grimmest and gloomiest of all the houses in Brook-street (which is, in point of fact, where we are) is one whose brightly-painted escutcheon over the street-door proclaims its aristocratic pretensions, as do the lofty and blank windows which gaze upon the opposite side of the street with a kind of grimace of fashionable hauteur.
Palliser’s knowledge of the look and feel of the streets of London seems as bottomless as if he had accompanied both Dickens and Henry Mayhew on their endless walks through the metropolis. Indeed every aspect of early-nineteenth-century England is meticulously and often viscerally described: the hierarchy, duties and rivalries of servants in a London townhouse, the sometimes benevolent and often predatory wretchedness of the poor, the bestial living conditions of insane asylums, the predawn arrival of the grocers in Covent Garden, and even the sewers, in some of which, as we rake through the muck and inky blackness in search of lost coins, we must tread carefully around the occasional fetid corpse, and beware the collapse of decaying brick and mortar beneath our feet, as it is of Roman antiquity.
We will receive lessons in the laws of inheritance and the language of heraldry, encounter the world of Fagin and Bill Sykes, meet body snatchers, prostitutes, murderers, thieving property speculators, conniving investment bankers (pardon the redundancy) and members of the Court of Chancery. We will shiver atop the mail coach from Yorkshire to London, having escaped a school drawn directly from Nicholas Nickleby, and be betrayed, after tantalizing foreshadowings, by almost everyone who presents himself as a friend. Our journey will conclude, most fittingly, with a chase on a dark and stormy night, a clandestine marriage, and murder in the ruins of an ancient family chapel.
The entire narrative is constructed with the precision of a Bach fugue, every passage so precisely crafted, so interdependent, as to appear indispensable: five sections, each for one of five families, each section composed of five books, each book of five chapters. Like any perfectly crafted work of art, literary or musical, nothing is superfluous and nothing is left out. A beggar who is turned away from the door will reappear hundreds of pages later. A ladder seemingly left by accident (but are there any accidents?) will be used for a burglary. A boy who on a warm spring day is taught to hold his breath and swim under water will one day save the life of another boy, and his own, with this newly acquired skill. As the Punch and Joan impresario Mr Silverlight explains, ‘The purpose of a work of art is that Man may trace [the design that underlies the universe] and find the pattern . . . In any novel I collaborated upon everything would be a part of the whole design – down to even the disposition and numbering of the chapters.’
The leitmotiv of The Quincunx is the interplay of Chance and Design – do we perceive Design in our lives, or merely impose it? ‒ underscored by the recurrence of those Dickensian coincidences that Dickens’s detractors so often deride as ‘contrived’, yet which occur in real life every day, but the foundational theme is greed: how it twists, degrades and ultimately destroys everything it touches, even the innocent, and how it so clouds the minds of men that they come to see their most heinous acts through an indestructible rose-coloured glass of self-justification. Like so much of Dickens, it is a cautionary tale. There are even hints in the final pages that Our Hero, having vanquished Evil at last, will himself succumb to the moral anaesthesia which so often accompanies vast wealth, and soon forget the few people, still alive, still struggling to survive, and but for whom he would not have prevailed, or even survived.
The Quincunx is literary art of the highest calibre. I almost wrote ‘literary ventriloquism’, but the narrative voice is so eerily uncanny, so numinous, that it feels more like channelling. The pressure of seemingly endless conspirators to defraud or murder John Huffam and his mother brings them closer to the edge of destruction with every page, and brought me to the edge of my chair. This is the only book that ever made me hyperventilate. It was the best of times; it was the worst of times. On the night I wanted to finish reading The Quincunx, I glanced up at the clock beside my chair, which was striking eleven, and closed the book, trying to catch my breath. I had to get up the following morning for work at 4.30. If I went to bed I knew I wouldn’t sleep (it would not be my first sleepless Quincunx night), but my mind was tiring, and if I didn’t get to bed I’d regret it in the predawn hours. However, if I made some tea, I could finish the book by 4 a.m., in which case I’d be a cripple all the next day. I made the tea.