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Rustication: A Novel, by Charles Palliser, WW Norton, RRP£12.99 / $25.95, 327 pages
Charles Palliser is the Miss Havisham of literature. The clocks stopped for him in 1989, not on his wedding day but with the publication of The Quincunx. He shoehorned into that Victorian mystery novel seemingly every theme to be found in the collected works of Charles Dickens, from disputed wills and unknown parentage to grand houses and debtors’ prison. The book became an instant bestseller and there Palliser has stayed, in a foggy and cobblestoned Dickensian world, for his subsequent novels.
With his latest, Rustication, Palliser is now channelling Wilkie Collins too. It is Christmas 1863 and young Richard Shenstone returns home in disgrace after being rusticated from Cambridge university. His family has also fallen in the world following the death of his clerical father: Richard’s mother and sister Effie are living in poverty in a dilapidated old house on a lonely south coast peninsular bordered by marshes.
Neither mother nor sister are pleased to see young Richard. Something strange is going on at Herriard House that Richard can sense but not understand; there are scratchings behind the wainscot, whispers at night and Effie treats him with unfeigned hatred. The neighbourhood outside the house is a chilly place too. The nearest town, Stratton Peverel, is a malign Cranford where the Shenstones’ fellow parishioners are frosty after church and gossip about a mysterious “widow”. There is talk too of Davenant Burgoyne, the nephew and heir of the local earl, and hints that Richard’s father may not have been quite a blameless man of God.
Richard himself is no innocent. Why he was sent down from university is one more mystery but he also has debts, an opium habit and an adolescent sex drive that fastens, panting, on every girl in the vicinity, from the housemaid Betsy to the snooty daughter of the rector.
If the set-up is pure sensation novel, it is still not heady enough for Palliser, who throws in the stuff of a dozen penny dreadfuls too. Misspelt and viciously obscene letters start to be delivered to the town’s womenfolk; they contain threats to Davenant who, it appears, has been vigorously exercising his droit de seigneur. To underline their menace, the appearance of the letters is accompanied by a spate of animal maimings – sheep and cattle are mutilated and left to die.
Richard, doped up and sexed up, is not a reliable narrator. His theories behind the letters, the rippings and his sister’s own relations with the caddish Davenant quickly dissipate like the mist off the marsh. Gradually, however, and with mounting horror, he begins to realise that not only is he the chief suspect but that he can’t prove his innocence. Worse still is the suspicion about who is manipulating events, and that there can only be one fatal outcome.
There is perhaps a reason why this is only Palliser’s fourth novel since The Quincunx: marshalling so many elements takes real craft and his plotting is as tight as a Victorian corset. His nerve is admirable, too. He makes little attempt to draw characters from real life but prefers to head straight for central casting, even when it comes to walk-on players, for example a bewhiskered “old countryman in gaiters and smock with a crushed and battered stovepipe hat on his head”. And there is always room for an extra little mystery, be it the nocturnal activities of a scuttling, jockey-like man or the beautiful girl accompanying a local archaeologist, who sometimes calls her his niece and sometimes his ward.
There is something of the music hall about the whole performance, but that is no bad thing. Palliser builds a sense of excitement with panache, tightening and knotting each strand of the web enclosing Richard with practised fingers, and he is an accomplished pasticheur of Victorian cadences. Anthony Trollope said that the sensation novel should offer both realism and sensation “in the highest degree”. Palliser doesn’t give quite a full measure of realism but he’s more than generous with the sensation.