Grave Expectations

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Some people bring wine to dinner. Some bring dessert. My friends bring books, which is, I suppose, why they’re my friends. One night, a ‘friend’ – I use the term loosely – cast a cloud over my life of unmolested tranquillity by presenting me with The Quincunx by Charles Palliser. (A quincunx is a group of five objects arranged so that four form a square and a fifth sits in their centre, as on a dice. I had to look it up too.) A master of the soft sell, he simply said, ‘Got this at a jumble sale. It’s kind of Dickensian. Right up your street.’ Then, rather than handing it to me, he placed it on a table and backed away, as if he had lifted a family curse by passing it on to the innocent.

The Quincunx is ‘kind of Dickensian’ in the same way that the Taj Mahal is kind of a nifty tomb. Even the name of its central character, John Huffam, is lifted from Palliser’s great inspirer, Charles John Huffam Dickens, but so to describe The Quincunx is almost to belittle it. At more than twelve hundred pages, perhaps half a million lovingly conjured words, it is as long as anything penned by Dickens, with a wheels-within-wheels complexity that Dickens, Wilkie Collins and Conan Doyle together could not have bettered. (Thankfully, there are genealogical charts, maps of early nineteenth-century London, a glossary of over a hundred proper names, and even a note on currency.) In addition, Palliser paints his characters with a subtlety of touch and linguistic exuberance that would have made Dickens glad to call them his own. Here we meet Mr Pentecost:

His face, which wore an expression which I can only describe as one of indignant good humour, was red-cheeked and adorned by little half-lens eye-glasses above which bristled a pair of very bushy eyebrows that gave his physiognomy an expression of permanent surprise. His appearance did not efface but recorded the history of his dressing: a neckerchief carelessly tied, stockings ill-matched, and the act of shaving ill-completed. His stained and patched coat was covered in a fine powder and when I knew him better I understood that this was because of his habit, on becoming passionately eloquent on a subject as he often did, of throwing rapid pinches of snuff in the direction of his nose so that it flew about him like a golden mist. He wore an ancient wig which somehow always contrived to get turned round so that the queue hung over one ear, impairing the tenuous dignity of his appearance still further.

With its lush stylistic narrative, linguistic precision, long, flowing subordinate clauses, so sadly uncommon in this age of drab, staccato, Hemingwayesque prose, The Quincunx would have sent Henry James off to burn his unpublished manuscripts in quiet despair.

The blurb on my copy states that the novel was twelve years in the writing, and I can believe it. It is a multi-family multi-generational saga swirling around a lost will

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About the contributor

Richard Platt has practised his own literary ventriloquism, voicing C. S. Lewis in As One Devil to Another, and Henry David Thoreau in a one-man stage show, Ripples from Walden Pond. He is now at work on a play involving G. K. Chesterton and Oscar Wilde. See

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