Charles Palliser has been on my radar for a long time, although this is the first of his novels that I’ve read. He is famous for his gothic Victorian-style historical fiction and I’ve been keeping an eye out for his magnum opus, The Quincunx, but it just so happens that Rustication cropped up in my local second-hand bookshop the other day. Couched in true Victorian fashion as a rediscovered manuscript, it’s told in diary format, unveiling the story of Richard Shenstone. In winter 1863 Richard returns home from Cambridge, whence he has been ignominiously expelled (a fact he chooses to keep quiet for now), hoping for an indulgent welcome from his sister and recently widowed mother. Their newly straitened circumstances have brought his mother to a bleak, windswept, isolated house on the edge of a salt-marsh. As if the location wasn’t grim enough, Richard swiftly realises that he isn’t quite as welcome as he thought he’d be. Worse still, he isn’t the only one who’s hiding something, and he’s about to find that no one can be trusted.
The Shenstone house is full of secrets. Richard himself hides the story of his expulsion, waiting for the right moment to break the news to his mother. He is equally reticent in disclosing his addiction to opium, and the precise circumstances in which his close friend Edmund died. Young, drug-crazed and tormented by sexual frustration, Richard is used to thinking of himself as a misunderstood soul, but he’s soon to discover that his problems are of small account compared to the secrets being hidden by others. Indeed, from the moment he arrives home he’s aware of mysteries and puzzles. Why does his mother greet him absently by calling him ‘William’? Who is ‘William’? Why does Richard’s sister Euphemia walk out alone at odd hours of the day and night? Why does she seem to hate Richard so virulently? Why is she trying to force him away from the house? Why wasn’t Richard allowed to come to the funeral of his clergyman father and why has his mother been left stranded, deprived of a church pension and the friendship of her former allies? What deep shame lies behind the Shenstone name?
To make matters worse, the village is a far cry from the town of Thurchester where Richard and Euphemia grew up. Yet even here, in the claustrophobic, curtain-twitching lanes, scandal is brewing. Who is the mysterious Mrs Paytress, the veiled widow who has hired the big house in the village? Who must the Shenstones befriend in order to be accepted? Which of the village’s young ladies will succeed in winning the heart of Mr Davenant Burgoyne, the Earl of Thurchester’s nephew and heir? Is it this shameless contest for a ring which has set Euphemia against so many of her former friends? And worse is to come. When crude anonymous letters are sent to many of the village’s ladies, accusing them of sexual laxness, no one knows who to blame. As the hunt for the letter writer intensifies, farm animals begin to be found mutilated in the fields. A darkness is falling over the village, but who is to blame? To his alarm, Richard finds suspicion falling upon himself. He must act – but how can he prove his innocence when everything seems to have been crafted to point to his guilt?
Richard is a deeply unsympathetic creation – lecherous, self-centred, obsessive, arrogant – and yet, for all that, a compelling one. His complete ignorance of his family’s situation means that we, as the reader, can piece things together with him. Palliser’s evocation of the nineteenth-century voice feels very convincing, down to the ‘transcriptions’ of Richard’s frenzied sexual daydreams, which claim to be translations from Greek, adopted here and there for the diary’s more prurient sections. Personally I wasn’t entirely satisfied with the ending and, even though Richard is obviously a complete swine in many ways, I didn’t buy his mother’s readiness to throw him to the wolves… But I did enjoy all the different layers of secrets and the gradual shift which transforms Richard from arrogant potential antihero to unfortunate victim. It’s a very atmospheric novel, perfect for cold, dark nights and offering a gritty picture of genteel Victorian poverty, hypocrisy and ambition. I’m inspired to redouble my search for The Quincunx and I already have an ebook copy of The Unburied, Palliser’s other novel, which like Rustication is set in the fictional cathedral city of Thurchester.