Reading Isabel Colegate's The Summer of the Royal Visit (1992) put me in mind of Suzanne Keen's Romances of the Archive in Contemporary British Fiction, in which Keen argues that such romances narrate "the recovery of discovery of 'the truth,' a quasi-historical truth that makes sense of confusion, resolves mystery, permits satisfying closure, and, most importantly, can be located."1 On the surface, at least, Colegate's short neo-Victorian novel fits Keen's model: the rather self-abasing narrator (the very first lines: "Let us just think for a moment then who I am. No one much" ) is a widowed former history teacher turned researcher in the local archives, who alternates between "peering at card indexes and trying to read old copies of the local newspaper on scratched microfilm" (4) and wandering through the city and its environs. Using this fictionalized spa town as the core of the tale, the narrator spins a multiplot account of the various do-gooders, architects, clergymen, and con(wo)men converging on this city in the late nineteenth century. Besides the space, two events unite these very disparate characters: the competition to build a new hotel and a very brief visit by Queen Victoria. In turn, the city's ever-mutable space links the narrator to his characters, along with his genetic relationship to one of his major players, his grandmother Charlotte Moore. Although the narrator has textual authority for significant passages of his tale--the aforementioned newspapers, but, more importantly, the diary of unhappy local clergyman Stephen Collingwood--it is not, in fact, altogether clear that what he wants or offers is "the truth," and he constructs his story so as to rule out much in the way of "closure" (let alone of the "satisfying" variety).
The narrative works mostly by association, frequently seguing from one character's POV to another's as a given encounter ends; in effect, the plot proceeds by chain links. This associativeness works in the narrator's present as well, as the tale either emerges from his movement from place to place or, conversely, sparks a moment of reflection. Because the narrator does not remain submerged, as it were, but frequently resurfaces--at first keeping his voice out of the Victorian sequences, then eventually entering into them to offer more direct commentary--the reader never loses sight of just how much he needs to fill in his documentary gaps. Paradoxically, his access to nearly everyone's POV highlights the fictiveness, rather than the historicity, of a good chunk of his project.2 As he explains near the end, "I found I could be a better historian if I allowed myself, just for myself, to tell stories" (215). In a sense, we overhear (to use John Stuart Mill's turn of phrase) the novel: it becomes the narrator's private riff on the publically available documents. To put it differently, Colegate crafts the illusion that the novel has no designs on the reader. Our narrator's self-deprecation, his interest in history as primarily a source of personal pleasure ("the springs of joy" ), suggests that his passions are purely antiquarian--one of Walter Scott's frame narrators meandering about in the twentieth century.
However, the actual plot rubs harshly against this vision of storytelling as good, clean escapist fun. Although the overall tone is quietly ironic, the vaguely Cranford-esque atmosphere3 contains within itself a much darker antiquarianism, embodied by the mysterious fixer Caspar Freeling and his interest in the Druids. (Which is not to say that the narrator's passion for the past lacks its own problematic quality: it's hard not to suspect that he has more passion for the past than for his late wife, whom he rarely mentions and always in a tone of mild bemusement.) Caspar's cod-Druidism--as Collingwood perceptively notes, "'[h]e would have to invent it'" (23)--seems at first entirely Dryasdustish, what with his convictions that the local Circus had been deliberately built "on the site of a former Druid circle" (36). But then, an article about Druids crops up, rather incongruously, as part of wealthy Marianne Hanbury's masochistic request for sex with Freeling (53). This moment, which seems to class Freeling's Druid obsession under the "quietly ironic" rubric, turns out to foreshadow something much uglier: this apparently mutual play with class differences and sexuality recurs in the actual point of Freeling's Druid reenactments, which is to prostitute working-class children to upper-class men. One of Freeling's customers, political reformer Herbert Tranmer, moans to Collingwood that "'[i]t was the meetings, the ritual, the dressing up, it made it all seem unreal, that's to say possible, the impossible was possible'" (179). Antiquarian costume drama turns out to conceal one of the worst forms of human exploitation. (One thinks of Charles Stross on steampunk.) The pleasures of neo-Victorian fantasies may not, after all, be quite so innocent. Intriguingly, Freeling's self-exculpatory vision of his own self-making, "a series of superimposed and more or less merging histories, each created to meet the needs of the moment, each convincing because he himself believed in it" (186)--stories that may be more "fiction" than "history" (186)--anticipates the narrator's own pleasure in storytelling. The primary difference, it seems, is that Freeling (again to borrow from Mill) intends his stories to be heard, not overheard.
Despite Stephen Collingwood's unpleasant discussion with Herbert Tranmer, the narrator in his own voice betrays no particular moral investment in the outcome: nothing happens to Freeling, who tries to burn his boy and girl prostitutes to death, or to any of the men involved in his ring (although Tranmer feels guilt, at least for a time), whereas Stephen Collingwood dies trying to rescue Freeling's exploited children. There's no poetic justice involved; in fact, some characters disappear entirely from the narrative frame, like Marianne Hanbury, about whose afterlife the narrator can discover nothing. It's as though once they've exited this regional space, both they and their actions simply cease to matter very much. At most, such behavior excites the same kind of mild irony from the narrator as the racism of several locals when faced with the Indian wife of Collingwood's landlord. The coziness with which the novel ends--the narrator's grandmother, who did not run away with Collingwood, quietly going home with her children--suggests that in the end, the past boils down comfortably to this humble, inconsequential domesticity. Or is this fantasy of a resuscitated marriage (semi-aware husband and guilty wife, making up) the alternative to the narrator's own marriage, which seems to have been primarily characterized by miscommunication or noncommunication? Is this past, whether heard or overheard, really all that disinterested?
1 Suzanne Keen, Romances of the Archive in Contemporary British Fiction (Toronto: U of Toronto P, 2001), 14.
2 I'm a little more skeptical about the narrator's claims to "credibility" than is Tatjana Jukic: "From Worlds to Words and the Other Way Around: The Victorian Inheritance in the Postmodern British Novel," Theme Parks, Rainforests, and Sprouting Wastelands: European Essays on Theory and Performance in Contemporary British Fiction, ed. Richard Todd and Louisa Flora (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2000), 84n7.
3 It may not be an accident that Cranford is one of the few Victorian works to get name-checked.