Oscar and Lucinda
The Times March 31, 1988
This is a love story, but at the climatic point when they should be planning to marry, Oscar and Lucinda are playing cards for money – he winning, in ecstasy, she losing, in swoony lightheadedness. It’s a story of passion and chance, set in England and Australia and on the oceans that divide them, in the second half of the 19th century.
Oscar has a phobia about water, but he sails for Australia. Peter Carey is Australian, but Oscar and Lucinda bridges the gap between the old world and the new and makes an organic unit of the two. He has been called Australia’s Dickens; this is shorthand for conveying the fertility of his imagination and his crowds of eccentric characters, who loom up and disappear again as people do in life. He catalogues the details of their behavior and appearance — and the behavior and appearance of umbrellas, insects, dripping taps, a lighted torch dropped down an earth closet, and anything else that catches his inner eye – with the virtuosity of a mad naturalist.
Oscar’s father is a mad naturalist, and a member of the Plymouth Brethren so fanatically strict that even raisins are sinful. He spends his free time collecting and classifying fossils on the Devon coast. Frail thin Oscar classifies his dead mother’s buttons. “Oscar wanted only certainly:”, an increasingly scarce commodity. He rejects his father only to become an Anglican clergyman.
He also becomes a gambler. Faith in God, he tells Lucinda later, is a gamble. “We must stake everything on the unprovable facet of His existence.” Conditioned to see life as a wager, he bets on horses, perfecting a system as elaborate as his father’s classifications of corals. This wonderful novel shows everyone locked in their private fantasies, dreams, fetishes, and obsessions. The passionate people, like Oscar and Lucinda, draw colder, dimmer ones into their unstable orbit.
Meanwhile the outside world is getting busier and noisier; Victorian ideas, inventions, crowds, smells, factories, machinery, ocean-going liners, Epsom Downs, the Crystal Palace, the wharves and gambling dens of the raw new city of Sydney e also bea;lkfjasd;lkjsdafl;jksdfajkl;sdfajklsdfaHe also becomes a gambler. Fairht in God, he tells Lucinda later, is a gamble. “We must stake everythingexplode into life on the page. (On the pages, rather – 512 of them. But it’s a fast ride.) In “the fancy-factory of the mind”, religious superstition and irrational fears coexist with half-knowledge of physical laws and processes. Bodies too are industrial units, the blood hurtling round, “veins, capillaries, sweat-glands, tiny factories in the throes of complicated manufacture.”
Lucinda, “belligerently un-Christian”, the daughter of a thwarted feminist who corresponded with George Eliot, inherits land in New South Wales and spends the proceeds on a glass factory. She encounters Oscar by chance, and by chance their fantasies merge. She is a gambler too. Her passions are for card-playing, for money – and for glass, a material both fragile and tough, like herself. With Oscar at her side, she builds a glass church, held together by decorative cast-ironwork. (This, as a symbol, is becoming a Faber family favorite – another recent Faber novel by Richard Bennett, Palais Royal, has a disaffected 19th-century Anglican clergyman obsessively involved with construction of a glass and ironwork arcade in Paris.)
The biggest wager of their lives concerns the glass church. The ending of the story is awful and heartbreaking. The stresses and strain, both physical and emotional, are just too much for Oscar. Lucinda’s passion for glass began when she saw the phenomenon called “Prince Rupert’s Drop” – a solid glass teardrop which, by a freak of physics, can’t be smashed with a sledgehammer but bursts into fragments if its tail is nipped off with pliers. Carey explodes the reader’s expectations and the structure he has built up in a similar way. To say he’s Australia’s Dickens is to classify him, like fossil. He’s Australia’s Peter Carey, and ours.
Victoria Glendinning is a biographer, critic, broadcaster and and author bof three novels The Grown-Ups, Electricity, and Flight. Her biographies include Elizabeth Bowen: Portrait of a Writer, Edith Sitwell: A Unicorn Among Lions,Rebecca West: A Life . Both Vita: The Life of V. Sackville-West and Trollope won the Whitbread Biography Award.