William Boyd – The Romantic
‘This is a true story’, The Romantic all but begins. It is based, supposedly, on the incomplete biography of Cashel Greville Ross (1799-1882), which William Boyd is meant to have obtained a few years ago and which peppers the novel’s sporadic footnotes. The reader is part of a game from the outset, but one that is easily settled by a bare minimum of research. Cashel Ross did not exist; nor, probably, did ‘W.B.’ actually sign off his preface from the same city in which Joyce finished A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man – ‘Trieste | February 2022’. The play’s the thing.
If Cashel had lived, he would enjoy a sizeable entry in Encyclopedia Britannica: IQ aside, he is essentially a nineteenth-century Forrest Gump. He is raised by a single mother (initially pretending to be his aunt) in County Cork. He joins up and fights at Waterloo, where he is wounded not quite in the ‘but-tocks’ but a little lower. He is cashiered for refusing to exterminate rebellious villagers in Sri Lanka, and then falls in with Byron and the Shelleys at Pisa. This is particularly tempting but always treacherous ground for a novelist, and whether Boyd has a handle on His Lordship is open to debate. His Byron has little in the way of verbal panache; in fact he reads like an insecure, intemperate bore. “[Shelley] knew that I was the greater artist. But he couldn’t live with the fact that he was inferior to me, socially speaking. In terms of rank”. This doesn’t sound much like the Byron who survives in letters and journals and anecdotes, but then Byron probably didn’t.
But if Boyd avoids the pitfalls of ham, the defining episode of Cashel’s life is a piece of Byronic plagiarism. It’s not so much that Cashel, like Byron, should fall into a passionate relationship in Ravenna – which of us hasn’t done that? – but that the relationship should be with a young, singular countess under the very roof of her weird, wizened husband. For Cashel and Contessa Raphaella Rezzo and Count Giacomo, read Byron and Contessa Teresa Gamba and Count Guiccioli. One can’t help but suspect Boyd if not of contempt, then at least an underestimation of his readers, and this shameless lifting is one of the many telltales of an author who ploughs the poppy fields of pop-lit. Being lightweight is not a crime, of course, and at least this pop sensibility lends itself to discussions of Love in all its weird, heaving brain chemistry. When Cashel meets Raphaella, “he [knows] – as an animal knows – that he had found his mate”, which doesn’t mean that Boyd will immediately give them the mind-blowing, eye-rolling sex that we think we know is coming. In fact, their first congress takes place in a cramped brougham with a servant keeping watch outside. But things get much better before they get worse, when Cashel writes Raphaella a snarling farewell and storms out of Ravenna, almost immediately starting to regret it.
We never really get to know Cashel, maybe because Boyd never tests our sympathies very far. He enjoys a good number of liaisons, as the book’s title suggests; but like Byron’s Don Juan, he is less of a great seducer than a great seducee. Claire Clairmont invites him swimming – to the outrage of a spluttering Shelley – and he accepts her further invitations on the warm sand. He is unmasked as the famous author of Nihil by a genial salonnière, and undressed: “As she had confidently predicted, [he] succumbed to Mrs Davenport early in the morning.” In New England he sleeps with the engaging Frances Broome, an apple farmer who reminds him of Raphaella; but we suppose that he wouldn’t have done so if his wife, Brìd Corcoran, had not been consumed by religious mania and ended their sexual relations. Boyd’s comment is spare to the point of perfunctory: “Cashel decided that the best and only course of action was to wait it out…He was always smiling at her, no matter what he was thinking”. The second sentence is talismanic of our mild but mildly boring hero; the first, meanwhile, is typical of Boyd’s urge to hurry things along. Pace is good, of course, but it’s the pace of a skimming stone, bouncing from place to place and rarely getting below the surface. A monkey bite in Zanzibar, for instance, sends Cashel spiralling through a handful of urgent paragraphs:
By now Cashel developed a fever, far worse than the malarial ones that he’d experienced in the expedition. He felt raging heat flaring up, in and around his body, and his bed was soon soaked in sweat. Then he began to lose track of time, not knowing whether one day or three had past, or which night he awoke, doubled up with agonizing, contorting cramps in his abdomen. His whole left leg was now discoloured, the skin hard with a dark brown crust that cracked and oozed blood when he put any weight on it. Only Kendal Black Drop provided any release or oblivion.
The prose is perfectly smooth and serviceable, oiled by pat collocations like “raging heat flaring up”, “soaked in sweat”, “lose track of time”. The narrative quality seems secondary to the action, and one fancies that Boyd is writing the source text for a film script, which is where most of his fiction ends up. Perhaps this is always a risk with the ‘life novel’, in which he has carved such a niche.
The Romantic works better when we accept that the protagonist is not Cashel but the nineteenth century itself, which develops, evolves and expands even as its journeyman remains remarkably ageless. The very title suggests that Cashel belongs to the time of the Shelleys and Byron; however well he adapts to later decades, we feel a growing nostalgia for the pre-Victorian age that we typically call ‘Romantic’. This is partly due to Boyd’s spare but convincing touches of period detail, so that we perceive a changing social timbre even without realizing it. Perhaps no surprise, then, that the final chapters should fulfil the promise of the cover image, as Cashel makes for the most romantic, cinematic, and out-of-time city of all.
The Romantic is published by Penguin and is available here.