Archive for November 6th, 2010

06/11/2010

Philip And Philippa: A Genealogical Romance Of To-Day

I don’t know exactly what I was expecting when I embarked upon this “genealogical romance”. Well – in a way I do: to be honest, something a bit creepily eugenic. But Philip And Philippa (1901) never wanders into that territory, thankfully, despite its unabashed belief in “family” and various references to “our race”. The emphasis turns out to be not upon “genealogical”, but upon “romance”.

This sole, self-published novel by John Osborne Austin tells the story of Philip Faulconer, a young American who is the last representative of his branch of the Faulconers. When his father, also Philip Faulconer, realises that his own death is imminent, he tells his son their history. Of an old English family, the Faulconers divided in 1645 when the younger of twin brothers, Richard Faulconer, emigrated to America.

(I may say that I was rather put off this novel at the outset by the discovery that the title in the Faulconer family was a knighthood – which Austin evidently believed to be hereditary. I suppose he meant “baronet”, or even “knight baronet”. Confusion of this nature is common enough in American writing, but it seems an odd mistake for a genealogist to make.)

Since that time, the two branches of the apparently not very fecund Faulconers had run in parallel, with the last of the male English Faulconers, one of many Sir Philips, dying some nine years before the opening of the story, in the same year as American Mr Philip’s wife. The only remaining member of the English branch, a five-year-old girl named (surprise!) Philippa, had subsequently been taken to New Zealand by her mother’s aunt.

Learning that around the time of the last Sir Philip’s death, Faulconridge, the ancestral home of the Faulconers, had burned down, destroying most of the family heirlooms and leaving Philippa with very little, Mr Philip Sr travelled to England, where he bought the lodge attached to the estate, refurbished it, and installed a housekeeper to look after it, intending it as a refuge for Philippa. However, knowing that he will not have time to find the girl himself, Philip Sr bequeaths this quest to Philip Jr, begging him to seek out his distant cousin, now aged seventeen, and convey her “home” to England.

(Ever noticed how characters in sentimental novels are always independently wealthy? Nothing inteferes with the pursuit of a romantic ideal quite so much as the need to earn an income, I guess.)

After his father’s death, Philip – the last Philip, thankfully – travels first to England, visiting the lodge and meeting its caretaker, Elizabeth Brown, and touring the ruins of Faulconridge, where he is inspired by his family’s history. Courtesy of Mrs Brown, he learns of a thwarted romance between two of his ancestors, Richard Faulconer’s great-grandson, Godfrey, and the third Sir Philip’s daughter, Philippa, who died before the marriage could take place. Also courtesy of Mrs Brown, who becomes convinced that the young Philippa must be the image of her grandmother, the seventh Lady Faulconer, whose portrait is one of the very few to survive the fire, Philip conceives a romantic infatuation for his as-yet unseen relative. He sets out for New Zealand, intending both to fulfil his father’s last wish and to unite the two distant branches of the family.

Arriving in Auckland, Philip learns that Philippa’s great-aunt has died, and gains only the vaguest clue to her present whereabouts. Swearing to find her no matter what it takes, he walks through a local park, where the very first person he runs into is his cousin – who he recognises instantly because she just happens to be a dead ringer for her grandmother.

I guess this is how things work in the world of the  “genealogical romance”.

Persuading Philippa to accept his father’s legacy, Philip escorts her to England. His feelings for his cousin move rapidly from infatuation to love, but since he is essentially in the position of her guardian, he decides that he must not declare himself until she is securely within her own home. The bulk of the remaining story consists of Philip’s inability to read Philippa’s feelings, his efforts to control himself in a string of tempting situations, and the possible dangers of staying silent. The latter manifests itself in the form of two potential interlopers: Ethel Mayberry, Philip’s childhood sweetheart, who may have a view to being something more; and Jack Spaulding, a young stockbroker from London who is instantly smitten with Philippa.

Will the Faulconer family history repeat itself? Will Philip’s feelings for Philippa turn out to be only infatuation after all? Will the advantages of outbreeding win out over a genealogical attraction? Will a member of the Faulconer family prove capable of loving someone whose name doesn’t contain a variant of “Philip”? Well, you’ll just have to read Philip And Philippa and find out, won’t you? – but since I apparently own the only second-hand copy still in existence, good luck with that one. (Hey, happy to lend…)

I guess the really interesting thing about Philip And Philippa is that it begs the question – when did it stop being okay for a man to write like this? John Osborne Austin makes no pretence whatsoever of his novel being anything other than a love story. The only thing that at all separates it from its fellows is that it is told from the point of view of the man. It is deeply sentimental in both content and tone, and not ashamed of being so. On the contrary: the preface reads, in part, The same old story of love’s young dream? Yes, prescient reader, the world never tires of it; and have you found anything better to dream of or work for? In addition, Philip stops from time to time to lecture us on the same theme, speaking pityingly to those who act or think slightingly of love: This is not a book of travel. but of love experiences; a theme large enough for most, if too restricted for a few. Unhappy few!

I don’t know about you, but I find myself glad that the obviously mushily romantic Mr Austin didn’t live to see a world where stories like his would end up branded with that most oppobrious of literary putdowns, chick-lit.