The Bequest by John de Falbe

A genteel voyage with brandy and cigars
Click to follow

In hours stolen from contemporary fiction, I have been reading Buddenbrooks. Thomas Mann's début novel of 1902 reflected his own family history. Mann traces the decline of the Buddenbrooks, a Hanseatic merchant family, from stable, bourgeois prosperity to the insecurities of the dawning modern era. At 600 pages, it has refreshed my enjoyment of works that require patience, instead of impelling the reader by sensation or drama. Mann's meticulous but urbane prose makes incident from parlour conversations, generating heat from sympathetic or unpalatable characters.

So I turned with whetted anticipation to John de Falbe's novel The Bequest, which, like Mann's work, is based on the lives of his Victorian forebears. Unlike Buddenbrooks, in which the disappearing society would still be recognisably modern on publication, The Bequest is a historical romance. De Falbe strives for a pared-down, Henry James-like ambience of genteel sightseeing that turns to courtship and leads to difficulties (or at least, complexities).

Captain Frederik Ziege, touring Italy with his marriageable nieces while on leave from the Royal Danish Navy, encounters the modestly independent Emmeline Leslie, the widow of an Australian rancher, in a Genoa hotel. Civilities and mutual acquaintance lead to shared travel to Rome and a proposal of marriage, which is accepted. Precious children ensue. Surprisingly, Ziege, the hale seafarer, is diagnosed with consumption, and subsequent travels en famille to Switzerland, Australia, Egypt, France, Denmark and England are largely in pursuit of healthy living quarters.

Thus reduced, even Buddenbrooks would not inspire. De Falbe's novel has interest and merit in its central characters but, perhaps with the modern taste for shorter novels, lacks the patience to flesh out digressions that would give depth to the overall picture.

Ziege's maritime adventuring in Greenland, Russia, Siberia and the Far East are mentioned but left unexplored, much as Jane Austen passingly alluded to Antiguan slave economies. Emmeline's first marriage plunged her into the travails of a frontier farming life but this, too, only percolates through to the reader in occasional recollections.

As the Zieges sail through the turbulence of global travel, tiresome financial matters and ill health, two props are used to shore up the theme of the anxiety of uprootedness: genealogies and photographs. Three family trees preface the novel; they help only slightly when de Falbe tries to anchor Emmeline's Australian heritage in a congested web of reminiscences. Black-and-white photographs of the family heirlooms mentioned - an ivory box, a dagger, a piece of lace - remain puzzling until the dénouement delivers a mild twist, but neither device makes up for the slightness of de Falbe's plotting.

Rather than give rein to the excitement implicit in his protagonists' histories, de Falbe has chosen, puzzlingly, to trammel his characters with domestic fussing. He creates a sort of odyssey-with-trunks that skirts passion or trauma with a quiet stoicism.

De Falbe's ear for period conversation is good, but without Mann's detailed cultural engagement, The Bequest remains lacklustre - "tolerable", as its gentlemen might allow over brandy and cigars. What frustrates in this novel is the sense that de Falbe writes well, but has constrained himself with a family history more meaningful to him than to his readers.