Misfortune – Wesley Stace

Misfortune by Wesley Stace is just a really weird book. It’s certainly not a bad book, but I failed to be overwhelmed.

The basis for the plot is interesting enough: A baby is abandoned to die on a rubbish heap in early 19th century London, but is rescued by Lord Loveall who is in need of an heir. He brings the baby home and contrives a marriage and birth to make the outside world believe the child, named Rose after his dead sister Dolores, is really his. The problem is that Rose is undisputably male, not female, however, he is brought up believing himself to be a girl and much hoo-ha ensues once the truth is discovered.

Just after his discovery, Lord Loveall dies, and Lord Rose inherits, but in true victorian style, Rose’s right to inherit is contested by “the other side” of the family, but this conflict drowns somewhat in Rose’s breakdown following his discovery of his maleness. This is one of the novel’s weaknesses, Rose himself ceases to care what happens to his estate and fortune and as he is the narrator at this point (and through most of the novel) I, as the reader, also failed to care much, while the tension in the plot – the “what happens next?” – hinges at least partly on just what happens to the family inheritance.

Another weakness centers on the characters themselves, to a large extent they remain two-dimensional and to me, certainly, none of them really come alive. This makes it difficult to care overly much one way or another about anything that happens in the book. And though Rose’s journey to find him-/herself is actually the most original and in some ways the most convincing part of the plot, it loses most of its power when the reader doesn’t really care.

I also found the resolution of the inheritance plot somewhat contrived (though predictable). This is perhaps excusable, as it is the genre norm that such things be contrived. Less excusable is the downright dreariness and sillyness of the final confrontation between the two conflicting sides of the family, this failed to engage me on any level whatsoever other than “oh, get on with it!”.

The strength of the novel, such as it is, lies in the use of historic materials and settings. A lot of research has obviously gone into making the plot and backdrop believeable, and this is largely successful. Apparently, some of the ballads used are available on CD, The Love Hall Tryst: Songs of Misfortune, recorded by the author under his other name of John Wesley Harding (what’s the story there, I wonder) and some fellow musicians.

So: Was it worthwhile? I’m not entirely sure what the answer is just now, I’ll have to get back to you on that.

(I still feel an O’Brian reread coming on, and such half-maddening reading experiences as this one are only likely to hasten that as they leave me with a need to read something I know to be worthwhile.)