“Nothing looks more peaceful and secure than a country house seen at early morning. The broad daylight gives the look of safety and protection, and there is the tranquillity of night mixed with the brightness of day, for all is yet silent and at rest about the sleeping house. One glorious July morning saw this calm loveliness brood over the Tower of Mainwarey, a dwelling so called, because the chief part of the building consisted of a square tower many centuries old, about which some well-fitted additions of the more recent possessors had grouped themselves. It stood in the midst of a garden bright with summer flowers, which at this hour lifted their silver heads all splendid with dew and sunshine; and it looked down the valley to the village, which stood at a little distance, intersected and embowered with orchards, and crowned with the spire of the church. Early as it was, another half hour had not passed before the master of the house descended some steps which led from the window of his dressing-room, and walked through his blooming garden to the stable, where his horse was ready for him, as it had been every morning for the last few weeks; and whenever the day was beautiful as this was, he had passed the early hours in riding.”
A lovely setting and a charming opening, as Paul Ferroll – clearly from the very start a classic Victorian gentleman – rises early to ride over his estate, meeting and speaking with his tenants.
A little too lovely? A little too charming? Yes! An servant is sent out from the house to break shattering news to its master. His wife has been murdered – stabbed as she lay sleeping.
A servant is tried, but acquitted, and subsequently emigrates with his family. Paul Ferroll shuts up his house and goes away.
It’s a fast-paced, dramatic and compelling opening and it really whets the appetite for what is to come.
Subsequent events unravel at a rather more stately pace. Paul Ferroll returns with a new wife, with whom he will soon have a daughter. And he continues to play the part of the gentleman very well. He becomes a magistrate and a respected author and meets all of his social obligations.
Yet something is amiss. Why does he reject every friendly overture from his neighbors? Why is he remote from the daughter who clearly adores him? Why is he unconcerned about the risks of a cholera outbreak?
The return after eighteen years of the widow of the servant acquitted of the murder of Paul Ferroll leads him to make a confession.
And that leads to a conclusion as fast-paced, dramatic and compelling as the opening. Paul Ferroll is tried, convicted and sentenced to death. But, with the help of his daughter, he escapes and the two start a new life in Boston. Where he eventually dies, peacefully and in his own bed.
It’s a cleverly structured and quite extraordinary tale.
On one level it is a portrait of a society that, though it suspected that husband killed wife, dismissed those ideas simply because he was a gentleman.
And on another it is a psychological portrait of a remarkable murderer.
The aspect though that sets this book apart is that it makes no judgements about the behaviour of Paul Ferroll. That is left to the reader and that, together with the absence of the traditional downfall of the villain, makes reading unsettling and compelling in equal parts.
Paul Ferroll was a highly successful and influential book in its day and its place in literary history is easy to see. Its anti-hero shares a number of characteristics with a certain Mr Rochester, and his story has many of the features of the sensation novels of Wilkie Collins and Mary Elizabeth Braddon that would come later.
But the book was also heavily criticised for its moral ambiguity, and maybe that is why it does not have the prominence of other novels of the period. It should!
The Valancourt edition is beautiful and provides a wealth of background material about both author and novel. I warmly recommend it to anyone with an interest in the period.