IS IS the kind of novel that makes you feel that Virginia Woolf, James Joyce, and D.H. Lawrence wrote in vain, and that modernism itself was no more than a flash in the literary pan. It is not so much a traditional as an indomitably conventional English novel, with the requisite subject matter (personal relationships), setting (the idyllic English countryside), and characters (spinsters, gardeners, vicars, novelists) a sort of Agatha Christie minus Miss Marple, and with a most unsatisfying mystery at its core. It is written in good, plain, serviceable prose: BeresfordHowe has mastered the craft of novel writing, but the art of fiction is something else altogether.
Here, in brief, is the lay of this fictive land: Montague Weston, a Robertson Davies ish novelist of ripe years, enormous literary fame, and quite stupendous fortune lures his youngest daughter, Paulina (painfully recovering from a car crash in which her feckless lover, as well as his car, has been totalled), to his sumptuous Kentish country house in order to enlist her services in marrying off her premenopausal, simpleminded, Cordon bleu half sister, Nan, to whatever suitor can be enticed or bribed into proposing. (Montague Weston is Canadian by birth, and some mention is made of western Canadian cities and Stratford, Ontario, but these references are so obviously token that one wonders why Beresford Howe bothered with them at all.) The novel begins one spring and ends the next; the idyllic rhythm of the seasons is punctuated by the various rituals staged by novelist Monty, among them a version of Milton's Comus, a masquerade ball, a Midsummer's Eve supper, and a Dickensian Christmas party.
The cast of characters is large, flat (in Forsterian terms) and competently done: the rakish, utterly egotistical Ralph and his charmingly indolent partner, Lally; the endearingly learned, spiritually gifted vicar, Richard, and his gin nipping, henna haired aunt Hermione (no relation whatever to Rupert Birkin's nemesis in Women in Love); the chinless, stammering, bachelor doctor, Crispin; Hamish, Weston's lame, sardonic, but ultimately seductive secretary, and last but not least, that indispensable member of the country house dramatis personae, Fisk, the gardener: virile, common, ninepence to the shilling. Fisk, it turns out, plays Caliban to Nan's Miranda: both vanish into thin air at the end of the novel, while Paulina/Ariel is freed from a state of death in life to embrace the modest pleasures of domesticity with the mellowed Hamish. Yet what should be the novel's trump card the enigmatic Nan, the one nearsilent character in a book filled with clever, talky people is never played, or rather is squandered: the reader should be haunted by Nan but instead is merely baffled. She seems to be an entirely expendable figure, serving to teach the arrogant Monty how little wisdom he really possesses, and to reanimate the emotionally and physically crippled Paulina. Beresford Howe seems to lose her nerve with her portrayal of Nan, whose radiant simplicity gives way, once a suitor has finally been procured for her, to a Woman's Own absorption in bridal gifts and interior decorating, and whose disappearance (after an admittedly splendid piece of theatre of revenge) simply doesn't ring true.
Prospero's Daughter is an intriguing, entertaining novel up to the point (about halfway through) at which the reader's interpretation of possibilities outstrips that of the narrator, Paulina. A more serious problem is that Beresford Howe sets up various ambitious themes "the power of language to create illusion," the "function and nature of the creative imagination" without possessing the power, in this novel at least, to give convincing aesthetic shape to them. We get plenty of high brow table talk, lots of pleasant descriptions of English country gardens, some highly amusing sketches of decidedly minor characters, and a peek at fife a la rich and famous, but only the merest hint of narrative magic, in the early portrayal of Nan. Yet for any novel drawing or inviting comparison with The Tempest, magic is of the essence. It's not that Prospero's Daughter isn't a novel worth reading but rather that it's a novel worth a more artful writing than BeresfordHowe attempts.