Tuesday, 20 June 2000

Peter Carey: Oscar and Lucinda (1988)

Edition: Faber & Faber, 1998
Review number: 527

An epic about New South Wales in the 1860s, Oscar and Lucinda is basically the story of Oscar Hopkins, English clergyman, and Lucinda Lepastrier, rich young glassworks owner. These two characters, particularly Oscar, are very strong and dominate the novel. They, like the minor players, are distinctly imperfect people, and in fact idiosyncratic slightly beyond the point of believability so far as I was concerned.

Oscar comes from a Plymouth Brethren background, and religion is one of the most important themes of the novel (gambling and love of glass - made into something symbolic - are among the others). Although never exactly reacting against his upbringing (he becomes an Anglican because he thinks God has told him to do so, not because he no longer believes in the harsh evangelicalism of his upbringing), and despite the religion of his father being deeply felt rather than hypocritical, the first half of the novel is deeply indebted to Samuel Butler's The Way of All Flesh. However, while Butler based his novel on his relationship with his own father, what Peter Carey writes does not seem to me to indicate much understanding of any evangelical denomination. Two major decisions made by Oscar illustrate this, in both of which he believes God has guided him. The first is to abandon the Brethren for the not very evangelical local Anglican church, and the second that gambling was the way in which God wanted him to support himself as a student in Oxford. While today denominations are not particularly important to many British evangelicals, to a member of a Plymouth Brethren congregation in the 1860s, an Anglican church would have been seen as only a small step better than a Roman Catholic one (and they would have believed that the Pope was the Antichrist). Though Oscar's father and others in his church are horrified, such considerations are disregarded by Oscar himself. Similarly, Oscar would almost certainly have been taught from early childhood that gambling was a serious sin. The orthodox evangelical belief in guidance, which would mean that both of these ideas would have been ruled out for Oscar, is that God would never suggest a sinful action; any such apparent guidance is to be seen as a temptation from the devil and not followed.

A deeply ambitious novel, Oscar and Lucinda succeeds in many of its aims. Nonetheless, it has annoying flaws, of which the most serious is the grotesque nature of the central characters. The author most famous for writing grotesques in an otherwise realistic narrative, Charles Dickens, generally restricts this to comparatively minor characters; most of his heroes and heroines are normal, conventional people.

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