In Rustication, Charles Palliser (probably still best known for his neo-Victorian doorstop The Quincunx) mashes up multiple Victorian genres and authors. Both the conceit--it's a "real" manuscript transcribed by "Charles Palliser"--and the main setting, a run-down isolated mansion near marshes and woodlands, are quintessential Gothic. However, the twisty plot, which involves murderous machinations over a will, poison pen letters, mutilated animals, blackmail, multiple red herrings, and lots of illicit sex, owes more to the sensation novel; for that matter, the adolescent narrator's coming-of-age through detection resembles that of the (much older) protagonist in Mary Elizabeth Braddon's Lady Audley's Secret. By contrast, the detective who appears to investigate the murders comes across a bit like Wilkie Collins' Sergeant Cuff from The Moonstone, and the narrative form (a diary interspersed with letters) is also Collins-esque. The opium-addicted narrator, Richard Shenstone, bears some resemblance (probably unintentional) to Branwell Bronte, and one of the supporting characters has a backstory that strongly resembles that of Helen Graham from Anne Bronte's The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (and is subjected to similarly nasty gossip). The reader is thus primed to suspect that something is afoot.
As the novel begins, Richard Shenstone, our seventeen-year-old narrator, has been "rusticated"--expelled--from Cambridge University under mysterious circumstances, which apparently include the death of a friend and a mysterious debt to that friend's family; the precise circumstances are not revealed until near the end of the book. Snobbish, selfish, unsympathetic to others, prone to (incorrect) snap judgments, and frequently incapable of deciphering those around him, Richard would already be marked for unreliable narrator-hood even before the reader gets to his opium habit, his perpetual horniness, and his disinclination to refer to his past at Cambridge. Richard's mysteriousness, however, is immediately echoed by his mysterious reception when he returns home: why does his mother call him "Willy?" Why was his sister dressed up? And why are neither of them excited to see him? The moment of mutual misrecognition between Richard and his mother--"For a moment she recognised me no better than I had recognised her" (4)--establishes a gap between parent and child that echoes through the narrative. In the frightening, disorienting possibility that a mother might not know her son, and a son not know his mother, we find one of the novel's prime sources of terror: that the nuclear family may not be an organic, stable site of identity, that returning "home" merely makes things strange. The Shenstones' puzzling poverty, which turns out to derive from a sexual scandal involving Richard's deceased clergyman father (the reader will figure out what the problem was long before Richard does), is only further proof that parents and children are locked in mutual unknowing. Most of the vulgar poison pen letters in fact involve ribald accusations lobbed at the "best" families about a child's known or secret sexual activity, a mother's literal or figurative attempt to "hore" [sic] out a child to get her wedded, incest, and so forth; the nuclear family turns out to be positively rank with transgressive lusts that refuse to stay safely confined within the bounds of marriage, the right parent-child relationship, and so forth. But do the parents and children know the family secrets, if secrets they truly are?
About a third of the way through the book, Richard's mother threatens him with a "revelation" if he refuses to decamp immediately, to which Richard responds by backing down and promising to "go away" (85). Richard's decision to refuse "revelation," a word which crops up several times in the narrative, makes keeping family secrets the precondition for having any sort of future plot--to know means that you've arrived at the ending (appropriately enough). In fact, when Richard does accept "revelation," it frequently leads to some kind of sudden reorientation towards another character or event--"[t]his revelation throws a new light on Lucy" (132)--that often leads to abrupt, premature conclusions that are just as much about self-delusion as they are self-knowledge. His "revelation" about young Lucy's personality, for example, prompts him to write "Beautiful creature, I have fallen into the waters of love and drowned in the deep brown of your eyes" (132)--an outburst of cliched passion that has no actual relationship either to Lucy or to his own actual feelings (which are permanently confused).
But "know" and its cognates, which appear hundreds of times, carry an even greater burden. Early on, Richard asks the innocent question "[d]oes Mrs. Paytress know Lord Thurchester?" (20), which turns out to be an accidental pun--the local gossip is that Mrs. Paytress (the Helen Huntingdon stand-in) does indeed know Lord Thurchester in both senses of the term. Knowing in this novel tends to be slippery, disavowed as often as avowed; it promises certainty, but often occurs in the negative (why did "the Lloyds pretend not to know us?" ) or as an expression of puzzlement ("How is it that Euphemia knows the word?" ; "I don't know why the mater has hired a cook who can't cook" ). When Richard insists that his sister Euphemia didn't "know what she saw on my face" when her twelve-year-old self caught him watching her take her clothes off (6), the reader cannot help suspecting that he is being disingenuous--not least because Euphemia will take advantage of her brother's incestuous desires later on. Richard's growing interest in detection, which propels him toward knowledge, also propels him toward the terror of domestic strangeness that I mentioned before. His habit of jumping to conclusions without sufficient evidence, as when he concludes that the local nobleman, Davenant Burgoyne, has "proposed marriage" to his sister (94) or that Mrs. Paytress is indeed carrying on an illicit affair with both Lord Thurchester and her servant (197-98), parodies the "eureka moment" beloved of so many detective plots, but it also prevents the narrative from concluding. In a way, the entire novel consists of Richard trying to come to multiple false endings, all of which divert him from the horror of the true ending, which will sever him from his family altogether.
I'd like to talk about the major plot twist, so I'll put the rest of this post below the fold. Abandon all hope, etc.
[Extra spaces for those using a reader.]
Given that the narrative consists of a diary and letters added to it at some unspecified date, the novel not surprisingly foregrounds the link between writing and identity. In so doing, however, it also revises one of neo-Victorian fiction's more common tropes, that of male monstrosity. Richard's diary breaks down into four types of entry: financial accounting (ironic, since Richard has almost nothing to speak of); narratives of day-to-day events, including sumaries of his hypotheses so far; reflections on his opium-enabled experiences (understandably only semi-reliable); and his sexual fantasies (and, eventually, experiences), rendered in a quasi-Pepysian manner (English but in Greek letters). The fantasies are utterly banal, the dreams of an apparently virginal male adolescent--the first example, which begins, "I wonder if she has ever seen a man's thing" (39), sets the stage for what happens in all the future fantasies. However, the fantasies are soon joined by his accounts of his attempts to seduce Betsy, the incompetent teenage servant; his eventual success, marked by the same incomprehension of human relationships that characterizes most of Richard's narrative (e.g., interpreting her request that he be "kind"  as a demand that he pay for services rendered), is hardly transcendent. But this subplot also initially seems to mark Richard as one more example of the neo-Victorian male predator, consuming all female bodies that cross his path. To some degree, the novel rejects this characterization: their adolescent relationship is still unequal on the grounds of age (he's three years older), gender, and class, but it ultimately contrasts with abusive pedophiles like Betsy's male relatives and, indeed, Richard's own father.
More to the point, the novel conjures up the spectre of the male monster as itself a fictional construct, the collaborative effort of Richard's sister, Euphemia, and her no-good boyfriend. The profusely profane and, apparently, quasi-illiterate "Harry the Harroer," part of an elaborate plot to implicate Richard in the murder of Davenant Burgoyne, sends poison pen letters and sexually mutilates animals. "Harry's" extravagant rage and violence, sometimes implying a kind of Jack the Ripper avant la lettre ("I like ripping bellys and I like it even more wen I can cut out a living babby from the woom" ), expresses both Euphemia's sense of betrayal and Willoughby's fury at a world that treats him badly because of his illegitimacy. The language, as more than one character eventually realizes, is a fiction of lower-class illiteracy: "there is a combination of an educated woman and an illiterate man at work here and it is that strange mixture of elementst that has thrown us off the scent" (181). Although this is itself partly wrong, given that Willoughby has an education, the basic point stands--the characters cannot "read" the letters properly because they cannot be traced back to a singular author, and the nature of the collaboration is itself a violation of gender and social norms. Moreover, a number of the villagers soon conclude (as intended) that Richard himself is writing the letters and mutilating the animals--a conclusion that even the reader may initially suspect is correct, what with Richard's opium-induced wanderings, his incestuous lust for his sister, and his eventual admission that he forged a signature. What his sister plots, then, is to forge the forger, to construct a new identity for him that will supplant his own writing and, ultimately, erase him altogether (thanks to the gallows). In this instance, the neo-Victorian male monster turns out to be a textual Frankenstein's monster of sorts. Even worse, Richard realizes that they have been successful: "I understand what has been done to me but that helps me not at all" (306). Knowledge is not much power.
Knowing the secret of authorship only destabilizes his situation further. The novel thus winds up deconstructing the detective novel's drive towards knowledge and closure, since the ultimate revelation of his sister's, Willoughby's, and mother's joint misdeeds brings no justice and, indeed, does nothing to free Richard from his forged identity. Instead, it precipitates his flight from the fake safety of home, into a frightening future symbolized by the dangerous marsh landscape. Although he finally grasps that "[a]ll my life I've been scared. Now I realise that what I was frightened of was the truth" (313), Richard's decision to seize control of the "truth" merely precipitates him into the unknown; as our editor explains, Richard has no documented ending beyond the end of the diary. His only way out of the murderous self his sister helps write for him, it seems, is to escape the archive altogether.