Sunday 26 December 2010

Penguin no. 726: The Astonishing History of Troy Town by Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch

I fell for this book before I had finished reading the dedication page. It seemed to be written in the most beautiful prose I had ever encountered. I was reminded of the opening line of the prologue to L.P. Hartley's The Go-Between: "The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there". They certainly write differently there. This novel was published in 1888, and its style would be completely out of fashion now, but I found it moving, and I was overwhelmed with an intense sense of regret that beauty for its own sake is no longer valued, not in art, nor in architecture, nor in writing. I wouldn't have cared what the story was about, I simply wished to keep on reading his words. Although I didn't always feel this way, and there were times when I found the richness of his prose a little cloying.

The novel is set in Cornwall, the county in which Sir Quiller-Couch (who wrote under the pen-name Q) was born, and in which he lived for most of his life. Troy is apparently a thinly disguised Fowey. At the time he is writing it is a working port, with a coastline dotted with the remnants of fortresses and a picturesque river. He completed it while he was still a student at Oxford, and I think the fact that it was written by someone so young is evident in the tone of the novel, which can sometimes be a little conceited and judgemental.

It was fascinating to read it immediately after The Time Machine. Both books include depictions of lower class villagers speaking in dialect, but in each the treatment is completely opposed. Whereas H.G. Wells caricatures his villagers and paints them as slow thinking and superstitious, Quiller-Couch treats his with affection. They are practical and reliable, with fascinating stories to relate and delightful turns of speech. He reserves his mocking for the genteel members of the village: the Admiral who sees himself as the unelected village spokesman, who takes to his bed at the slightest disappointment, and who relieves his ill-temper by abusing his wife; his son Sam Buzza, who enjoys upstaging his father, and wastes his time in gambling and drinking; the affected poet Mr Moggridge with his woeful verse, and the Misses Limpenny, whose delicate sensibilities allow them to be shocked by all that is vital in life. They are deferential to status and easily led. The arrival of a couple posing as the Honourable Goodwyn-Sandys and his wife turns village life awry.

The highlight of the book is the character Caleb Trotter. I would quite happily have dispensed with the entire plot concerning the members of the village, to have the entire novel focus on Caleb and his tales. At times this speech was difficult to decipher, but it was endlessly entertaining, with its misapplied words, literary allusions and "figgers o' speech". Caleb is employed as 'teetotum' (presumably factotum) by Mr Fogo, a stranger to the village who seeks privacy and the complete avoidance of women. Mr Fogo is also hopeless, but he is endearing, and it is his tale that brings the novel to life.


  1. Although I am in Cornwall and not so far from Fowey, I have to admit that the only book of Q's I have read is Castle D'Or, which is probably not his best. It was his last incomplete work that was completed that Daphne Du Maurier completed at his family's request. The story was a little weak but the characters and places were lovely. I have been keeping an eye on the Troy Town novels in the library , and you have definitely inspired me to look more closely. Thank you!

  2. Delightful! All I can boast is a complete set of King Penguins, most of them edited by my PhD topic, Sir Nikolaus Pevsner.



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