I’m sitting on the couch, with that reader's absent-minded look of of being lost in another world. I haven’t gotten up for hours, because I’ve been transported to a house in 18th-century England outside of Cheswick (my book has a map), with Francis Herries, hero of Hugh Walpole’s magnificent historical novel, Rogue Herries.
Walpole’s 700-page magnum opus is exactly the thing to read on a damp gray day. i’m hooked on this tetralogy about the flamboyant Herries family, which follows the clan from the 18th to the 20th century. In the first volume, Rogue Herries, we meet Francis Herries, a strong, exuberant man in his 30s known for his lascivious humor, wild ways, and bad temper, who, having grown restless and disillusioned with city life, moves his family to Herries, a crumbling family house located among hills and moors in northern England. (Yes, it’s a get-back-to-the-land novel.) This bawdy, funny, dramatic novel emphasizes Francis’ commitment to the land and the damp, dark house which the rest of his family hates, but also relates the history of his son and youngest daughter. He earns the nickname “Rogue” when he sells his mistress at a fair (reminiscent of The Mayor of Casterbridge), but his placid wife adores him through adulteries and scandals; his staunch son David grows to manhood unwaveringly loyal, if not particularly intelligent, and with a knack for business; and his daughter Deborah, who is having a clandestine epistolary affair with a minister, fears him. (Only the middle daughter Mary, a treacherous, dull girl who moves to Cheswick to live with another branch of the family, dislikes him.)
Francis falls in love with a teenage gypsy, Mirabell Starr, and his adoration of her beauty and wild character make him determined to wait for her until she is is ready a decade later to move in with him. The marriage is one of convenience: she doesn’t love him and makes it clear. She has had a tragic past, and for years pines over a dead lover.
Walpole’s frequent allusions to Shakespeare, Richardson, Fielding, Hardy, and Bronte give you a hint of the tone. At one point, three women discuss the merits of Richardson and Fielding: the two sexy ones vote for Tom Jones. At another point, the tragic Mirabell becomes an itinerant actor in a Shakespearean company. Walpole’s style is so lively and his narrative by turns so playful and compelling that one races through this novel.
Here is an example of his lively description of a “good witch” in 1774 compared to a “bad witch” hunted and drowned earlier in the novel (the first of several paragraphs about her) :
Mrs. Henny was a southern woman who for ten years had been living a widow in Grange. She was a lady of all trades - nurse, midwife, cook, friend of all the world and, in the modern manner, a witch. One may see how different the modern manner (temp. 1774) is from the old, because whereas, years ago, Mrs. Wilson had been persecuted and drowned, Mrs. Henny was the most popular woman from Seathwaite to Portinscale.
This romp is very different from Mr. Perrin and Mr. Trail, the first Walpole I read, recently reissued by Capuchin Classics and reviewed here. Rogue Herries reminds me very slightly of one of those huge John Cowper Powys books. Walpole wrote much, and not always as well as here, according to critics, but I'm very much looking forward to the other Herries books (used Pocket Books editions abound on Amazon, or you can opt for new editions published by Frances Lincoln Limited ).