Duncan Sprott's The Clopton Hercules is an interesting book, powerfully written, and certainly (indeed, remorselessly) clever: but one-tracked, and self-satisfied. It takes a traditional target, the bizarrerie of upper middle-class Victorian sexual behaviour, and blasts away at it with satirical vigour and relish: but the more points are scored, the more pointless the exercise begins to seem. Here we have, on the sexual front, a priapic squire, his neurotic trapped wife and swarms of lower-class mistresses, his uncontrolled lusts and lunatic outbursts of violence; and on the social front, the squire's over-reaching ambitions for his family, his 'meteoric rise into respectability and affluence', followed, of course, by his spectacular fall (linked, in Dickensian or Trollopian fashion, both to sexual profligacy and to speculation on the railways). The story is based on a true case, that of Charles Warde, and incorporates documentary passages from legal proceedings and newspapers: but its historical veracity is absolutely of no importance. What matters is the rhetorical twist which Sprott gives to the events, the modern standpoint from which he sardonically represents them.
LRB 23 May 1991 | PDF Download