Review by Lisa Hopkins
The plot of this novel can be summarised as follows:
An elderly gentleman, Mr Neeld, makes a hobby of editing memoirs. In one he reads how Adelaide Tristram, heir of Blent, married her second husband Captain Fitzhubert after she had run away from her first, Sir Randolph Edge. Pregnant, and anxious because her child will be illegitimate, Adelaide hears of the death of Sir Randolph, and she and Captain Fitzhubert immediately marry. They learn that Sir Randolph did not in fact die on the date reported but a few days later, but his death still preceded their marriage. Their son Harry is born, and they discover that Sir Randolph died in Russia and the date was Old Style, making their marriage invalid. This information was known only to the author of the memoirs and to a young child, Mina, whose mother was a friend of Adelaide Tristram. Mr Neeld suppresses it, but coincidence brings together Harry and Mina. Harry is defiant until his mother dies and he meets and falls in love with his cousin Cecily and concedes his right to her, but she loves him too and is equally anxious to be self-sacrificing, so can even the Prime Minister sort it all out?
I found this book very readable, but I was slightly baffled throughout by the fact that it is both generically indeterminate and without obvious point. It is certainly not what I had expected from the author of The Prisoner of Zenda and Rupert of Hentzau, though it does share with them an interest in questions of identity, inheritance, and the consequences of illegitimacy, and also has something of the same serene confidence in the wisdom of elder statesmen and the general benevolence of a hereditary aristocracy, various members of whom are prepared to interest themselves in Harry’s fate because they remember his mother as a girl, and to enlist Cousin Robert, who happens to be the Prime Minister, to help. The book might perhaps be best understood as a paean to English eccentricity: the Tristrams are odd, but they are of the land, and as the subtitle suggests, they both speak of an English past and promise an English future. I was also very struck by how much time and energy the characters have to devote to exploring the nuances of their own and others’ emotions: there is a perfectly obvious solution to everyone’s problems available from really quite early in the novel, but the various parties have to be painstakingly wrought to the right pitch of feeling to be willing to accept it. (There is perhaps something of a parallel here with the Lord Peter Wimsey stories, where Harriet can’t marry Peter until she has stopped feeling grateful to him.) Another difference from the Ruritania novels is that there are no villains, although equally there are no perfect characters: Blent, the name of the Tristrams’ estate, presumably takes its name from the adjective ‘blent’ (as in Twelfth Night where Viola describes Olivia as possessing ‘beauty truly blent’), and in the end blent is what everyone is.