Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Rogue Herries - Hugh Walpole

Francis Herries uproots his family & takes them to his family home, Herries, in the Lake District in the early 18th century. Francis is a proud, arrogant man who has alienated most of his family, including his timid wife, Margaret, who is terrified of him. The only person Francis loves is his son, David. David adores his father & his younger sister, Deborah, a sensitive child who is devoted to David but frightened of her father. Their sister, Mary, is confident & attractive & will always go her own way. Francis has humiliated his wife by bringing his latest mistress, Alice Press, to Herries, supposedly to look after the children. Alice, however, longs for the early days of their affair to be rekindled, even though it's obvious that Francis's interest has disappeared. She takes her revenge by being rude to Margaret & trying to ignore the gossip & David's contempt for her.

When the Herries family arrive in Borrowdale, the house & farm are neglected & falling into ruins. Francis, however, is immediately drawn to the land & the house & will never willingly leave it. He will continue to battle the barren land, one way or another, for the rest of his life. Francis has a reputation as a hell-raiser, a womaniser & brawler. His family & servants don't know whether he'll smile on them or raise his fist to strike them. He's feared in the neighbourhood because of his reputation & because he keeps a servant, Mrs Wilson, who is reputed to be a witch. He also harbours a Catholic priest, Father Roche, whose position is dangerous in the years when the Jacobite threat is still present. Father Roche fills David's head with stories of the glories of the martyred King Charles & the Catholic religion. Francis earns the nickname Rogue because of his temper & his determination to go his own way, regardless of opinion or propriety. His brother, Harcourt, tells David,

He spoke of Francis' youth, of how he had been always different from the others, capable of the greatest things, but that some instability had always checked him. 'He hath always imagined more than he grasped, dreamed more than he could realise. There is a wild loneliness in his spirit that no one can reach.'

Francis is capable of sudden acts of kindness & compassion. He gives his coat to a beggar woman he meets on the side of the road, an act of charity that will have far-reaching consequences when he meets the woman again years later & becomes enthralled by her daughter, Mirabell. Later, when Francis & David find themselves in Carlisle during the Jacobite invasion of Carlisle by Bonnie Prince Charlie, Francis meets Mirabell again, with the young man she loves & wishes to marry. Francis's love for the elusive, self-contained Mirabell will come to dominate his life & cause him as much frustration as joy.

He had never once been free of her ... All the new compassion and softness that had lately been growing in him so that the sterner, more ironical part of him had been frightened at the change and tried to drive it away, all this had been from her. It had been as though he had been educating himself out of the nastiness and pride of his earlier life, so that he might be ready for her when she came to him: and now she would never come.

Meanwhile, David & Deborah have stayed at Herries - David because he promised his mother before she died that he wouldn't leave Francis & Deborah because she doesn't have the courage or confidence to go anywhere else. David is well-liked in the community for his gentle strength & honesty but, when he finally falls in love with Sarah Denman, a fairy princess trapped with a wicked uncle who wants her inheritance, he finds himself ignoring the laws of God & man to rescue her.

Rogue Herries is a big, sprawling family saga. Apart from the interest in the story of the Herries family, from their arrival in the Lakes when David is just eleven until the 1770s when he's a married man in his 50s, the picture Walpole draws of the Lake District is very atmospheric. But really, the dominant figure is Francis Herries & it's his story that fascinates, more so than David's story which is tame compared with the wild passions & dramas of his father. David's wife, Sarah, describes the difference between the two men when she tries to explain why she & David should leave Herries & make a life for themselves,

'Davy, your father and Mirabell are in another world from you and me, from Deborah too. We see things plainly as they are, and always will. A road is a road to us, and a house a house. But Mirabell and your father see nothing as it is. I cannot sit still like a puss in the corner to wonder which way the wind is blowing. For me, give me a fireside and you, a square screen to keep off the draught, a work-basket, and I can do well enough; but for them they see neither screen nor work-basket. But always something beyond the window that they have not, or once had or would have, or will have if they wait long enough.'

There are also elements of myth & legend in the book. From the fear of the country people that leads to Mrs Wilson being swum as a witch to the mysterious pedlar, "a tall, thin scarecrow of a man, having on his head a peaked, faded purple hat, and round his neck some of the coloured ribbons that he was for selling. By his speech, which was cultivated, he was no native, and, indeed, with his sharp nose and bright eyes he seemed a rascal of unusual intelligence." whose appearances never bode well, superstition & portents are never far away. I feel that Walpole must have read & loved Wuthering Heights as there seemed to be echoes of that book in Rogue Herries. I loved this description of Christmas at the home of the Peel family which reminded me of a similar scene at the Heights,

In the chimney wing were hung hams and sides of bacon and beef, and near the fire-window was an ingle-seat, comfortable most of the year save when the rain or snow poured down on to the hearth, as the chimney was quite unprotected and you could look up it and see the sky above you. Such was the kitchen end of the room. The floor tonight was cleared for the dancing, but at the opposite end the trestle-tables were ranged for the feasting. Here was also a large oak cupboard with handsomely carved doors. This held the bread, bread made of oatmeal and water. On the mantle and cupboard there were rushlight holders and brass candlesticks. In other parts of the room were big standard holders for rushlights.
All these tonight were brilliantly lit and blew in great gusts in the wind.

The omniscient narrator ranges backward into history & forward into the far future which emphasizes the timelessness of the story he tells. Sometimes he hints at the future of the characters or of the Lakes or England, describing the changes that will come with the Industrial Revolution. I've marked so many passages of beautiful description of landscape & the details of the domestic life of the characters. Walpole loved the Lakes & he felt that this series, the Herries Chronicles, would make his reputation. The energy of the narrative swept me along but it's the character of Francis Herries, his struggles, his almost spiritual feeling for his land & his essential loneliness that is so captivating. I'll give Francis the last word,

"'Tis as useless a life as a man can find and as pitiful, but I've had moments, Davy, that you will never know, and 'tis by the height of your divining moments that life must be judged. I love this woman that I have got here as you and Sarah will never love, in the entrails, Davy, down among the guts, my boy. ... And they'll not drag me from this house till the rats are gnawing at my toes and there's lice in my ears. For this is my home, this spot, this ground, this miry waste, and here I'll die."

No comments:

Post a Comment