The Fly on the Wheel by Katherine Cecil Thurston

7307423‘The Fly on the Wheel’ is set in an Irish country town, at the turn of twentieth century.

Barny Carey was a mason, a common man, but he had great ambitions for his sons, and had been prepared to work to achieve his dreams. The first was to be a lawyer, then there would be a priest, an architect, a civil engineer, a banker, a sailor, and finally, seventh, a doctor. But he had only just begun to set his eldest boys on their paths when first his business failed, and then he died.

Stephen, his eldest son, took up the reins. He became a solicitor; he married well, he married the daughter of the wealthiest man in the town; they had children; he had become a pillar of. And he had sent five of his brothers out into the world, and seen them established in good, steady positions in middle-class Irish society.

Frank, his youngest brother, was coming to the end of his medical studies in Paris when Stephen learned of his engagement to Isabel, a penniless local girl. He was horrified; he knew that Frank needed a wife with money and with a position in society. And so he went to see Isabel, to explain to her why she should break off the engagement.

‘When I was twenty I thought Waterford the narrowest hole on God’s earth, and myself the one man who was going to step outside it. But’ – he gave a quick despondent shrug of the shoulders – ‘I went under like the rest. There’s a big machine called expediency, and we are its slaves. We oil it and polish it and keep it running, every man and woman of us; and if by chance one of us puts his hands behind his back and says he won’t feed the monster any more, what happens? Does the machine stop? Not at all! It’s the deserter who goes under.’

Isabel was lovely, she had spirit, and she had no intention of bowing to social conventions. But she understood Stephen, she did what he asked,  she found herself falling in love with him. And she made him question the choices he had made, she made him realise how hollow his life was, as he began to fall in love with her.

Katherine Cecil Thurston catches characters, relationships, and middle-class society beautifully. I never doubted the she knew and understood the people, the time, the place. And the consequences, for Stephen and for Isabel, of any steps they might take …

The central relationship is nicely understated, kept in the background but always kept in mind, as Isabel’s aunt tries to guide her, and as Stephen’s wife is urged by her sister to assert her position. Finally, at a house party, things come to a head.

The story was compelling, and I really didn’t know what was going to happen, or what I wanted to happen, until the very end. Katherine Cecil Thurston pulled so much drama from the situation, without ever compromising the honesty at its centre. I grew to realise that she didn’t just know and understand; she cared, deeply and passionately.

I can understand why she was a very popular author in her day, but I can also understand why her name is little known now. She died young, and so many other women have written so many stories of relationships and of society’s strictures since then. And yet, for all that it is a little dated, this book still speaks so eloquently …

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