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Against my better judgment

Every now and then, I make a mistake in a bookshop. I buy something against my own better judgment. I can count on one hand - one finger, perhaps - the times that buying a book against my better judgment hasn't led to disappointment. If I remember correctly, the last time that this happened, I allowed myself to be persuaded by Lenox Hill Book Store proprietor Jeannette Watson's pitch to another customer; perhaps I deserved what I got for eavesdropping. The book was The Da Vinci Code. Empty calories! Not only did I dislike the book, but my respect for Ms Watson dropped a bit, too.

After a certain procedure late last month (see the entry for 27 October, but don't say I didn't warn you), I did not call Kathleen to tell her that I was fine, as I was supposed to do, but, still somewhat dazed - feeling okay, but not a hundred percent grey-matter-wise - wandered instead into Shakespeare & Co's Hunter College branch. Memo to self: don't buy books on anesthesia. Piled on a table of recent paperback releases, A Weekend at Blenheim, by J P Morrissey, roped me in.  The blurb from Dominick Dunne on the back cover signaled that the book would be light entertainment at best, but the opening paragraphs read nicely enough, and the packaging did promise a visit to the most formidable of England's stately homes.

I visited Blenheim with my father, in the summer of 1977. We were driving from London, through Oxford, to a hotel not far from Birmingham where he and my mother, who had just passed away, had enjoyed a stay some years earlier. Woodstock was on the way, so we pulled in for a look. There was no question of going indoors. The baroque bulk seemed rather urban for the gentle countryside, but it was handsome nonetheless, and the slope from the water to the Great Court was a nice stroll. My memories of Blenheim are pleasant enough.

The Blenheim of Mr Morrissey's novel, in contrast, is malign.

Its monstrous square towers and commanding arcades gave the palace a romantic, medieval air, as it it were a fortress high on a cliff over the Rhine or along the road to Damascus.

Built with a grant bestowed upon a victorious general - "war money" - it is more mausoleum than home, a prison for the dukes and duchesses who must somehow keep it up. The current, ninth, duke of Marlborough - the story is set in the summer of 1905 - has married very well, if not for love, in order to pay off debts and repair the fabric of his ancestral pile. His duchess is the former Consuelo Vanderbilt - and the future Mme Jacques Balsan. Other real folks on hand for a country-house weekend are the duke's first cousin, Winston Churchill, and the duchess's mother, Alva Belmont. So is the duke's mistress and future wife, the American Olive Deacon. Rounding out the party are John Singer Sargent and a Monsignor Vay de Vaya. These people are used to living in the presence of great power, and they're all - even the Monsignor - very sophisticated. If you want to know more about them, Wikipedia is a good place to start.

Into this Edwardian scene are introduced John Vanbrugh, a young American architect, and his English wife, Margaret. Margaret is the daughter of the local vicar, and the duchess, intrigued by the young man's name, which is the same as that of the architect of Blenheim itself, has decided to hire him to "do some work" on her private rooms. (This project never sounds plausible for a moment.) At first charming, thoughtful, and even adorable, the duchess eventually shows herself to be worldly and calculating, willing to do anything to preserve appearances. In the course of less than forty-eight hours, John goes from protectiveness through worship to disenchantment. To say more would spoil the story.

Throughout the book, I thought how much better A Weekend at Blenheim would be if it had been written in the third person. Van's narrative voice is annoyingly fussy. His middle-class Yankee's first impressions of English stately grandeur are predictably obsequious and naive. His respectability is especially tiresome. With a little more art, and rather more acid, too, Mr Morrissey might have turned his hero into a very unreliable narrator, a sort of dry Charles Pooter. As it is, Van simply doesn't know his own mind on the subject of Blenheim. He thinks he hates it, but he can't stop describing it in minute, enthusiastic detail.

She left our group and turned to the duke, who was standing with Mr Sargent, who looked troubled. She whispered something to the duke, and a flash of irritation crossed his face. At that moment the butler announced dinner, and as a group we proceeded to the dining room, which had been simply but exquisitely arranged. A crisp linen tablecloth, two silver vases spilling over with white orchids, two tall bronze candelabra, their red candles covered with small opaque shades; the china rimmed in scarlet, turquoise, and gold; the myriad crystal wine glasses and sparkling silverware - all contributed to the beauty of the table.

It's paragraphs like that that make me long for Henry James's obliquity.

Another, related, failing of the narrative voice is that it is characterized by a sort of intervening amnesia. The illusion of the first person story is that the writer is reporting events that occurred in the past. Presumably the intention is to show how things came out. Mr Morrissey's narrator, however, seems to be genuinely unaware of what is going to happen next. This is necessarily true of the character in the story, but it makes the reporting narrator look very, very stupid. There is no irony, no foreboding, no intimation of the denouement. As a result, the plot begins to look like an excuse to linger in an ohh-and-ahh environment.

A longer discussion of this novel would explore the hypocrisy and contradiction of Van's marriage - or, rather, the strong impression that Van is notaware of them. (More stupid.) There are moments when he seems ready to run off with the duchess, although in a strangely platonic way. If Margaret weren't pregnant, I'd wonder if John's friends and relations failed to tell him about the facts of life.

Much of A Weekend at Blenheim is thoroughly delightful. Mr Morrissey appears to be in thorough command of his history as well as of his architecture, so much so that I wonder if the novel might be a metastasized dissertation. It is always very agreeable to read about lively figures who really trod the earth. Mr Morrissey's Winston Churchill, still a bachelor in 1905, is always a welcome voice, and his cousin is humorlessly dim. Miraculously, for an historical novel, nobody says anything noticeably anachronistic - although I do question "soul mate," perhaps mistakenly. "Downstairs" life, insofar as we see it at all, takes place upstairs, in the attics of "Housemaids' Heights." But I may as well say that I was grateful for the nice photograph of Blenheim's rooftops in Country Houses from the Air. It turned out to be helpful for following the novel's somewhat unlikely climax.


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