Schlee lays bare the deadly atrophy of soul behind mid-Victorian moral rectitude in an insidiously moving tale based on the...



Schlee lays bare the deadly atrophy of soul behind mid-Victorian moral rectitude in an insidiously moving tale based on the famed historical events leading to the 1849 trial of Bartholomew Drouet for the unreported deaths by cholera of 180 children in his charge, in the village of Totting. ""The forces of dark. . . is too ancient a power for us to disregard. . . . For what dragons must we keep outside our charmed circle?"" The near-senile Vicar at Totting had been chattering away to amuse the child Barty, who with his sister, young Laura, had been sent by their clergyman father from London, where cholera threatened, to the wintry country to stay with snappish Aunt Bolinger, thickly jovial Uncle, and polite but edgy Cousin Henry, studying for Holy Orders. Like others, the Vicar is grateful that Drouet's pauper children, skimmed from overflowing workhouses, and well paid for by parishes, are kept ""out of sight."" Schoolmistress Margaret Roylance wants to investigate village rumors that the children are abused, but Aunt and her fatuous friends will have none of it--after all, they're not ""our poor."" But Laura, a ""meek governed child,"" has caught sight of the thin, shivering ""unwanted"" children--and Laura's fledgling conscience, learning the subtle currents of correct behavior, is as yet unfettered. Then Laura and Barry confront in Uncle's barn three ""Drouet children"": Lizzie, whom Laura had seen skipping rope in the freezing yard, and two brothers, Will and tiny James Andrews (for whose murder Drouet will be tried and acquitted--to courtroom applause). ""Only by the greatest efforts across great distances"" does the well-bred little Laura secretly feed the three each day--ambivalent about her Lady Bountiful role before the ""fixed hopelessness"" of doomed children. To his mother's disgust, Henry is attracted to Margaret, who begs him to visit Drouet's; but his visit is business-centered. It is the death of Lizzie, discovered by Laura, which reveals the final horror. And why, asks Laura's truly good Papa, did she tell no one about the children? There was simply ""no one to tell."" A touching and moral tale about the social bonds and comforting absolutes which blind us to the imperatives of helping the helpless among us.

Pub Date: April 5, 1982


Page Count: -

Publisher: Holt, Rinehart & Winston

Review Posted Online: N/A

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 1982