Email this review


The young fogy Wilson (whose many books include biographies of Milton and Belloc as well as the novels Wise Virgin and Scandal) here recreates Victorian England in full antiquarian detail. His highbrow period-piece concerns an old-fashioned crisis of faith--a topic previously explored in his non-fictional How Can We Know? At the center of this witty melodrama are the Nettleships, a thoroughly bourgeois and, until now, boring British family. Professor Nettleship, paterfamilias and pasty-faced pudge, catalogues craters. He's a geologist specializing in volcanoes, whose scientific studies have led him into vociferous religious apostasy. To his dismay, his son Lionel, off at Oxford, wants to become a clergyman, an Anglo-Catholic priest no less. Mater Charlotte, beautiful and much younger than her balding husband, meanwhile bemoans her loveless marriage; they haven't talked to each other in 15 years. And their naive daughter Maud, a vision out of Rossetti, is about to lose her innocent charm (as the plot thickens, she learns to dissemble). Everything erupts the day Severus Egg, Charlotte's foppish father, visits with Timothy Lupton, a dashing young artist, and Waldo Chatterway, Charlotte's godfather and former confidant, who's just returned from years abroad. The foolish old Chatterway, compulsive gossip and busybody extraordinaire, sets in motion the misunderstandings that will reveal in the end ""the ugliness of naked passion."" Anglophiles will find it worth skipping the latest episode of ""Masterpiece Theatre"" for this well-crafted exercise in nostalgia (a nostalgia which also finds the narrator speaking of ""Jew-infested"" street corners and ""niggers in a woodpile""). But this elaborate costume-drama, complete with historical cameos by Walter Pater and that ""scribbling Johnny"" from the colonies (Henry James) will remind others that their time would be better spent with the real thing, a Thackeray novel perhaps.

Pub Date: Feb. 1st, 1985
Publisher: Viking