If I were to describe someone as a romantic, what would you think? Someone who makes elaborate, loving gestures towards someone inevitably referred to as “my inamorata”? Someone who appears in, or writes about, medieval romances? A member of a school of poets from the early years of the 19th century? Or perhaps someone who lectures upon such poets? For William Boyd, the title is bestowed upon someone whose life happens to overlap with the latter days of those same poets, though his own involvement with them is tangential at best. And beyond that his life, while far from prosaic, is not exactly romantic; and his love life, as such, tends to the functional. But he was there, someone who, by chance or more commonly by misadventure, finds himself caught up in the fringes of the great events of the age.
Boyd has, of course, done this before, what he calls a “whole life novel” which is presented as the life story of someone who stands as a representative of a particular historical period. Most famously, I suppose, he did it in Any Human Heart, though I think he did it better in The New Confessions and Sweet Caress, and you get something of the same character in Love Is Blind. In this case, The Romantic of the title is Cashel Greville Ross, though at different times he goes by other variations of the name. Born in 1799 and dying in 1882, he thus serves as a representative of the 19th century, taking us from the romantic early years to the more businesslike later years.
Ross is raised in a small cottage on the outskirts of a great estate in rural Ireland, where his “aunt” is tutor to the daughters at the big house. It is only when circumstances force them to leave Ireland for Oxford that he discovers his so-called aunt is really his mother, and his father is the owner of the Irish estate. The revelation disconcerts him enough that he runs away from home, lies about his age, and joins the army, only to find himself a drummer boy at the Battle of Waterloo. Typically, he is wounded even before the battle is properly joined, though the fact that he was at Waterloo gives him a prestige he will enjoy throughout his life.
Recovered from his wounds he joins the Indian Army, but is forced to quit when he refuses an order to take part in a massacre. After that he sets out to journey around Europe with the intention of writing a travel book. While in Italy, he makes the acquaintance of a Mr and Mrs Williams and their companions, Mr and Mrs Shelley, and through them he is introduced to Lord Byron. He becomes a part of their circle for a few weeks, even beginning an affair with Clair Claremont, but then Shelley is killed in a boating accident and Ross is there when the body is cremated on the beach.
After this he begins a torrid affair with a beautiful woman who is married to an elderly Italian aristocrat. He abandons her when he is fed lies about her motivations (though in truth her subsequent career, marrying one rich aristocrat after another, suggests there is something of the gold-digger about her). Ross regrets this impetuous action immediately, and throughout the rest of his life she will be the model of the perfect woman he seeks to find.
He does indeed write his travel book, and it becomes a best-seller because of the scenes with Byron and Shelley. He also writes a fictionalised account of his erotic adventures with the Italian aristocrat, which is published anonymously and also becomes a notorious best-seller. But he is cheated out of the money his books have earned by the publisher, and ends up in prison for debt. From this moment on the book acquires an almost mechanical structure: achievement and reversal, riches and poverty. Freed from prison he goes to New England where he has bought a farm. He marries the daughter of a neighbour, but she goes mad; and his assistant realises that the hops that grow wild on the farm can be used to brew an excellent lager. But no sooner has this business started to make money than he is forced of his farm and flees back to England. With a companion from the Indian Army he sets out to find the source of the Nile, but his companion dies, all his scientific observations are lost in an accident, and his discoveries, including being the first white man to reach Lake Victoria, are appropriated by John Speke who follows in his footsteps. Back in England, Ross sets out to discredit Speke, but when Speke dies from a self-inflicted gunshot that Ross suspects may actually have been murder, he flees again. Now a dubious acquaintance from his past reappears and offers him the unlikely position of Nicaraguan Consul in Trieste, which Ross takes because there is a steady guaranteed income. But it turns out that this is a cover for a major operation in antiquities smuggling, which Ross is able to smash with the aid of Speke’s old companion, Richard Burton, who is now the British consul in Trieste. After this, Ross must flee again, fearing revenge, and spends his final years hiding out in rather seedy circumstances in Venice, until he dies on a trip to be reunited with his old aristocratic lover.
There is a lot of story here, and Boyd is scrupulous in fitting the life of his fictional character into the historical events of the period: Waterloo (1815), the death of Shelley (1822), the search for the source of the Nile (1856), Speke’s death (1864), Burton’s diplomatic posting in Trieste (1872). But as I said, the episodic nature of the story and the mechanistic feel of the win-lose structure, makes it feel less of a whole than something like The New Confessions or Sweet Caress. there are lots of good bits in the book, but they don’t necessarily cohere into a good whole.