by Mary Cholmondeley
Diana Tempest was published in 1893, chronologically much closer to the works of Mary Webb than those of Mrs Henry Wood or Hesba Stretton, and although the plot--revolving as it does around inheritance, legitimacy, love, money, and treachery--sounds commonplace enough, Mary Cholmondeley treats it in a much more individualistic and "modern" way than the writers of an earlier generation.
Some elements in the story, such as the repeated attempts on the hero's life, are barely mentioned in passing, although from another writer one would have expected pages of excited description spattered with exclamation marks. But the story is gripping, and the characters are appealing and endearing. They are real people rather than idealised or demonised. Colonel Tempest, the "villain", is essentially a pathetically weak man drawn into evil through inertia, and although Archie is a feckless sponger, John seems to have tolerated him and even been friends with him during his early years. Even Mitty, John's old nurse, is delineated with affectionate and respect, with no hint of patronising.
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"Lindo [the hero's dog] walked in first, his dignity somewhat impaired by a brier hanging from his back flounce"
"Miss Fane was of no more use than a sheep waked at midnight for an opinion on New Zealand lamb would have been"
It's not that surprising to find a rather quirky humour in a "romantic novel" written in 1893: But it is surprising when the humour is put in its context: for Lindo has been a silent witness to John's highly emotional "crisis of life", when "with a harsh inarticulate cry he flung himself down on his face...for the Hand of the God whom he would not deny was heavy on him" and Miss Fane's uselessness is being described minutes after John, the hero of the story, has apparently been murdered.
It's this unusual juxtaposition of emotion and dry humour, of highly emotive writing (the kind Stella Gibbons would mark with asterisks) and understated descriptions of everyday, humdrum life, which makes this book so interesting. John is described as "that ugly beggar with the clean-shaved face and heavy jaw" and of Diana "women said...that her features were too large, that she was on too large a scale altogether", and the emotional interaction between the two is essentially that of two intelligent equals, who, at the (truly happy) ending of the story "wept and clung together like two children".
The time-line of the book, too, is disconcerting: the first three chapters set the scene, including the "contract" on John's life, then there is a leap of several years which brings John and Archie up to adulthood, and then, several chapters later, we go back to John's childhood. Again, what we expect is not quite what we get.
It is this continuous confounding of expectations which makes Diana Tempest such an interesting book, seeming to shake some of the fustiness out of the melodramatic, romantic Victorian novel, and making it much more attractive to a later generation living in a very different world.
Page created 15 November 2002 and last
updated 17 December 2002
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