Think, if you will, of an earlier age in the chronicles of English literature–an age when authors such as Dickens, Thackeray and Trollope flourished. Remember a period in which verbosity was no crime and a novel was needed to fill the long spare hours of autumn evenings. Recall that time when themes were veiled in multiple layers of plot and characters, that era in which an author might freely discourse with his reader.
It is to this previous epoch, more than to our own, that The Quincunx, Charles Palliser’s novel of early 19th-century England belongs.
The Oxford English Dictionary defines ‘quincunx’ as ‘an arrangement or disposition of five objects so placed that the four occupy the corners, and the fifth the centre’. In the context of Palliser’s book, the quincunx is an heraldic device of five fleurs representing the five branches of a single family–the heirs of one Henry Huffam.
For a decade, the Huffam heirs have feuded, employing both legal and criminal means, for the control of a vast fortune, the disposition of which depends upon the suppression, destruction or revelation of a codicil to a will.
The central figure of Palliser’s quincunx is John Mellamphy. He is an child at the novel’s outset, with neither father nor surname, but the rightful heir under the terms of the codicil. His mother–the timid and trusting woman who holds the coveted codicil–is bilked of her small income through the machinations of her father-in-law. Desiring safety from their enemies, and seeking some measure of economic support, Mrs. Mellamphy takes her son to London. Instead of finding succor, she places herself and her son in further danger.
Swindled and humiliated, the Mellamphys are reduced to a life of meanest poverty, scrabbling a meagre living on the fringes of London’s depraved and criminal underworld. Mrs. Mellamphy finds release in drug addiction. Buffeted between despair and danger by foes bent on his destruction, the boy joins the ranks of the homeless, begging for bread, sleeping in doorways and gutted buildings. Doggedly, he pursues the truth of his paternity and the resolution to the issue of the codicil and the Huffam inheritance. But this is only the surface of the plot.
The author has peopled this dark realm of avarice and equity with vivid characters. In the style of Dickens, Palliser melds the metaphoric and realistic, creating a rich concert of humanity caught in the grip of universal, unfaltering truths.
Throughout this cathartic epic, Palliser’s tone and language remain locked in the Victorian aesthetic. His narrative voice is sharp and stark, slicing clear etchings of that world of glimmering half-light and distorted lime-lit shadows we glimpse in sepia daguerreotypes. It is a prose style more familiar to readers of Thackeray, lacking the sentimentality of Dickens.
As in Dickens’ Bleak House, The Quincunx explores the vast cavern of corruption and greed within the context of property and equity under the law. Like him, Palliser has woven the components of a gripping mystery into a substantial work of social, historical and literary merit.
The Quincunx disturbs, provokes, enthralls, enriches, entertains, and reveals truth. It is, indeed, a masterpiece.
The Quincunx by Charles Palliser. Ballantine Books, New York, 1990. 788 pps.
(This review was originally published in The Christian Science Monitor.)