West indian literature

William Boyd draws heavily from literature in ‘the romance of a lifetime’ The Romantic


What larks!

In The Romantic, William Boyd approaches the form of the novel as if he were writing in the 19th century, rather than about this period.

It’s aimed at the romance genre, so a reader might expect something more like Vanity Fair than an iteration of Any Human Heart.

All that’s missing from The Romantic, as an example of an earlier prose format, are those endearing chapter headings such as “In which the hero discovers the mystery of his true origins.”

Don’t worry, Cashel Greville Ross discovers the fundamental secret of his congeners, but Boyd communicates the facts under the banal title of “Chapter Two”.

Boyd has a long interest in the “lifetime novel” and has written several. This one, unlike the others, is written in the third person, requiring, according to its author, a more screenplay approach.

Things, in the absence of an interior monologue, have to keep happening and the action has to be packed into the pages.

The content can hardly be new in the historical circumstances, as writers including William Makepeace Thackeray have chronicled the times before.

Here is the protagonist, Cashel, as a drumming boy in Belgium in the year 1815.

Boyd makes a retrospective joke when his characters discuss the future name of the battle, posing Nivelles as the likely choice. Bad.

This skirmish was long known as Waterloo. Later – also reminiscent of Vanity Fair, Cashel joins an East India Company regiment.

There is a delightful scene in a tailor’s shop, in London’s Savile Row, when he is outfitted in his uniform, including the headgear, which is a ‘stove shako with a feather-feather trim’. black ostrich”.

Thackeray’s wife’s Anglo-Irish family was from Doneraile, Co Cork, and there are sections of The Romantic which not only resemble the books of the great English writer, but also Bowen’s Court, written by the scion of a another family of Protestant descent.

Cashel is brought up by the governess in a large house which is the twin of Elizabeth Bowen’s birthplace. One character, Guy Stillwell, has the same dynastic ideals as Bowen’s background and the same attitudes towards life.

He believes in living in an elegant and gracious manner, with servants and stables, regardless of capital, income or debt. He finds himself, like Bowen’s father, without a male heir and thus favors the quarters of the governess, Cashel, offering him financial support for his studies and, later, buying him a commission as a lieutenant, stationed at the barracks of Madras, India.

Like many men of his generation Cashel travels a lot and to that extent The Romantic is a picaresque tale, structured episodically as the adventurer, Cashel, adopts several identities and as many professions.

The cover depicts an aerial view of Venice, the city of Casanova, indicating that Cashel is a lover. Stillwell encouraged him, as a boy, to travel and sow some oats before settling down as an adult, hinting that it might stave off trouble.

Cashel takes this advice to heart as he extends his youthful wanderings into later life, though it is impossible to describe him, even in old age, as having reached maturity.

Boyd draws heavily from literature, being particularly drawn to Stendhal’s autobiographical play, The Life of Henry Brulard.

He describes the French author as a romantic, similar not only to his main character, but to himself. Henry de Stendhal, like Cashel de Boyd, is a romantic in the most common sentimental sense.

This medley of William Boyd’s reading life isn’t just about spotting influences, it’s also a headlong rush and a pleasure to read.

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