Magazine article The Spectator

Small Maelstrom in Yorkshire

Magazine article The Spectator

Small Maelstrom in Yorkshire

Article excerpt

GATHERING THE WATER by Robert Edric Doubleday, £14.99, pp. 250, ISBN 0385603126 . £11.99 (plus £2.45 p&p) 0870 429 6655

An abiding impression of the Victorian period is its mania for being straight-faced to the point of seeming strait-laced, for order and precision, for enumeration and explication. The Times affirmed that 'just now we are an objective people.

We want to place everything we can under glass cases, and stare our fill.' Gathering the Water tells the story of the 1847 flooding of the Forge Valley in West Yorkshire for a reservoir in a fussy, finicky Victorian way. And the problem is not staring our fill, but finding enough to fill our stare.

Charles Weightman, the narrator, is the 'flooder' charged with supervising the evacuation of the remaining habitable homes in the valley before the water comes surging in.

But such a summary actually -- and drastically -- over-dramatises the little that happens in the novel, which could be more efficiently rendered as: Weightman waits and weightily watches. His narration comes to represent a simple stock-take of the stock characters he meets along the way: the strong, unattached female ('I was always considered the more valuable catch. No sons in the family'); and her sister, a madwoman let out of the attic, for example.

This is padded out with lengthy musings that busily tell us absolutely nothing. Take this anodyne anecdote, with its futile spasms of parenthetical self-translation:

I have made my first significant error. I daresay there have been inadvertent others -- countless small miscalculations and misjudgments that the rising water has quickly erased, leaving that mirror in which only perfection is reflected -- but I call this the first of my significant errors -- perhaps 'deceit' would be more honest -- because I was complicit in its making, by which I mean it was the result of a decision on my part where other, more honest courses still remained open to me.

Indeed, the author is so keen to be matter-of-fact in the Victorian manner that he forgets entirely about the more important matter of fiction. This is a story almost entirely without remarkable incident. …

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