(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Lemprière’s Dictionary is an unusual novel; it is an intellectual tour de force that uses the styles and structures of a number of different narrative types. There is, for example, the quest plot which is an intellectual mystery in the manner of Umberto Eco; there is the Dickensian style (and world) of many of the middle sections of the novel; there are the interrelationships between classical myth and modern life; there is a pirate chase; and, finally, there is a love story. The central element of this farrago is the quest of the main character, John Lemprière, for the documents and information that will make clear the nature of his father’s death and redeem his life. That quest involves a search into the history of the East India Company and into the bowels of its mysterious and expansive archive. Norfolk intertwines this and other plot strands with a good deal of success, in a mixture of styles that are, on the whole, rather overwrought. Furthermore, there is often no clear demarcation between one plot strand and another, as the narrative quickly shifts from one to another, straining point of view and structure. The overall effect is like that of reading Charles Dickens with a lens provided by Thomas Pynchon.

The novel begins with the early life of John Lemprière on the island of Jersey. Norfolk emphasizes his prodigious classical learning and his love for Juliette, the apparent daughter of Lord Casterleigh, a part owner of the East India Company. John sorts out Lord Casterleigh’s library and is given an edition of Ovid’s Metamorphoses with a striking plate representing Diana and Acteon. At the close of this section, the classical myth comes to life as John’s father, Charles Lemprière, is torn apart by Lord Casterleigh’s hounds after viewing his Diana, Juliette, bathing naked in a stream. The conversion of classical myths to real events continues to follow John Lemprière. There is, for example, an evocation of the Danaë myth when John discovers a woman who literally is filled by a shower of gold, a mineral that takes her life. These recurrences make him doubt his sanity. Later it is revealed that this was another plot by the East India Company.

John then goes to London to seek information about his father’s role in the East India Company. This section imitates Dickens’ Great Expectations (1860-1861), as the young man comes to London in search of his fortune, finds a friend, Septimus, and participates in London life. There is, for example, an extended description of a hilarious dinner at the “Pork Club,” complete with games and the gorging of pork. In addition to these Dickensian events, John discovers a document that suggests that he is the owner of one-ninth of the fabled East India Company.

Septimus appears to be a friend and guide to John but, like many others, he is in the pay of the East India Company. Despite this apparent betrayal, Septimus does help John in a number of ways, and he is the one who will reveal the true parentage of Juliette Casterleigh at the end of the novel.

While searching for more evidence to support his claim, John discovers a worthwhile activity, writing a dictionary of classical mythology. This is one of the more amusing allusions of the book, since there was a historical John Lemprière and he did write a book on classical mythology. John labors on his dictionary as Samuel Johnson labored on his, and readers follow him through the alphabet, mastering entry after entry. Norfolk includes a number of entries from the real John Lemprière’s work, completing this curious interaction of texts.

During this scholarly work, John finds out more about the East India Company. The company originally had a charter from the English monarch, but early reverses forced it to seek financial help from a group of French traders from the city of La Rochelle. John consults Lady de Vere about the history of the company and his right to a part of the profits. Her father, the fourth Earl of de Vere, was an original shareholder of the company, but when he fell into financial difficulties, he asked François Lemprière to aid him. François did so and thereby became entitled to one-ninth of the company’s profits. Currently, the company is ruled by a cabala of nine men who are plotting to aid the revolution that is coming in France. Most members of the group have their origins in La Rochelle, on the east coast of France. They were Huguenots and were caught in the persecution and siege of the...

(The entire section is 1832 words.)