I need to step outside of the eighteenth century for a moment to wade into the swamp that is the nineteenth.
In one of my habitual jaunts around the remaining desiccated bookshops in Charing Cross, I had to collect five books in order to pay four pounds for them. One of these books was an interesting looking novel called ‘Piccadilly’. It was published in 1870 and my copy was reprinted in 1927. I chose it because it had an interesting and perky first page about a mansion in Piccadilly overlooking Green Park that was chopped up into flats.
It turned out to be one of the strangest books I have ever read; the tone, the message and the plot are all off-kilter with each other.
The tone is light and fluffy with frequent asides to the reader. The narrating character, Sir Frederick Vanecourt is a rich, idle MP who one day wakes up and decides to write a history of civilisation. Deciding this is too hard, he decides to write an account of his life in Piccadilly and assumes that he will find suitably important things to say within that.
Vanecourt is wealthy, vain and convinced that he was an exceptional personality that gives him special access to the truth. He says things like, “something is upside down; perhaps it is my head, but I rather think it is the world generally.” He hangs around with people with names like Spiffington Goldtip and Lord Larkington. It would seem then, that the humour and satire in the book are to be gained from watching an utterly useless young man and his utterly useless friends, sort of like a Wodehouse book.
However, the theme is that the world is sick because it professes rather than practises religion and that a stripped down, honest look at the life that Christ recommends is the cure of all society’s ills. The agent of these revelations is also Vanecourt. This means that when he is not twitting about, he’s declaiming long and passionate on the fake religion of the ‘worldly-holies’ and expounding the true faith of Jesus.
His actions do not back this up though. Apart from being vacuous and endlessly self-celebrating, he is cruel, deceitful and frequently underhand, brushing those traits off as his eccentricities.
“As my readers will have perceived, though my intentions are always excellent, my course is occasionally, under any unusual strain, erratic.”
This means that it’s impossible to know how to take the character’s utterances. Are we supposed to be on his side the whole time (because I certainly wasn’t) or are we only supposed to take some of what he says seriously?
The plot, which is supposed to hold all this together, consists of Vanecourt falling in love with Ursula Broadhem, finding out she loves his best friend but will be married to an Indian called Chundango. His job is then to sort out the Broadhem finances and use that stranglehold over Lady Broadhelm, Ursula’s mother, to engineer a marriage between Ursula and his best friend. There are added complications with gossip, electioneering and playing the stock-markets. He then goes to America with a mystic he met on a street for two pages.
This is a perfectly fine plot for the character of Vanecourt to be involved in but it doesn’t leave much room for the religious theme, so various scenes are squeezed in to give rise to those thoughts.
This is not to mention the racism and sexism. Chundango comes from “a heathen land where a pocket handkerchief is sufficient for clothing” and Mrs Broadhem has to learn to stop trying to sort her own finances out and to let a man do it.
The most attractive thing about the novel are the run of the chapter titles, namely;
I think a better novel could be written with them.
Being a little old fashioned with my criticism, I do like to know a little about an author and previous criticism when considering the work. Laurence Oliphant was the son of minor gentry who led an adventure filled, action packed youth as part of the civil service abroad. One particular moment was in Japan where he fought an irate samurai with nothing but a bullwhip.
Rather like Vanecourt, he became a half-hearted MP living in Piccadilly where he became disenchanted with established religion and it’s deadening effect on real faith. Shortly after publishing ‘Piccadilly’, Oliphant ran off to America with the mystic Thomas Lake Harris, much as Vanecourt does at the end of the book.
Oliphant then tried to form a utopian society, was a journalist in the Franco-German war and became one of the early leaders of the zionist movement. After his wife died, he wrote a book with her ghost, moved to Twickenham and died himself.
This confusing life doesn’t make much sense of the confused book - but at least I can understand the source of the confusion.
I’m not recommending the book though.