Skeletons rattle in the closet, while an ancient aristocrat struggles to understand a new generation.
William, the 86-year-old Seventh Earl of Upton, is in poor health. His grandson Seabold, a recent arrival at Upton Hall in the English countryside, has suggested writing a diary as good therapy, so this wisp of a novel is in diary format. The old Victorian fears his impecunious grandson, his last surviving relative, is a parasite, and his suspicions are deepened when Seabold invites two girls, daughters of a tenant farmer, to stay at the Hall. As he tries to deal with the problem, William is bombarded by lurid memories. His sister Angela was deflowered by their father before the old boy went mad and had to be shackled. The madness was hereditary. To prevent it passing to William, his mother shopped around for another father; his sire was one of three servants, meaning the Earl is a bastard. Rayfiel’s fifth novel displays the same Gothic excess as his first (Split-Levels, 1994), but not in any detail—these are shards of memory. And there are scarcely any memories at all of his much younger wife Alice or his daughter Miranda, who died giving birth to Seabold. Meanwhile, there are eye-popping revelations in the present. Seabold’s lover is not pretty Kate, the farmer’s daughter, but strapping Lucas Dalrymple, a fellow aristocrat from their Oxford days who William, too clever by half, has inadvertently brought to the Hall. (He had his own same-sex experience when, as a nine-year-old, he was seduced by Angela’s suitor Lord Albemarle.) It’s a mess, but one William will not sort out, for his health is failing rapidly and his thoughts are turning to the nightshade that Cook has ready for him. She will perform the mercy killing he denied his own mother.
This fuzzy outline for a period melodrama is likely to disappoint admirers of Rayfiel’s Eve trilogy.