The Brandon Papers

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

The author sets this novel’s tone in the foreword by explaining how Maurice Evans’ bundled research came to his door and how he now feels compelled to publish THE BRANDON PAPERS. He warns the reader that the character of Lady Mary is quite altered in these pages from the persona of recent exhaustive academic attention, and the mystery of her life is radically changed. Debunking a feminist heroine is unsavory, but Evans’ papers convince Bell that Mary’s “fault lay not so much in doing ’good’ as in large-scale fraud, perversion, and homicide.”

Sparked by a cryptic phone conversation and a death notice, Evans’ curiosity led him to investigate Mary Brandon. His files begin with the details of her childhood, exiled on a remote Newfoundland island with her wicked stepmother and her maid. Here she remained until her cousin Henry, recently arrested in England for dressing as a woman, attempted to rescue her. Unfortunately, he and all the other island residents except Mary and her maid drowned tragically. Subsequently, the two girls were rescued by a passing boat and deposited in Boston.

Next in the file, Mrs. Cecily Gordon relates her experiences as Mary’s etiquette teacher. They traveled together from Boston to Rome, Vienna, Paris and London, and Cecily taught Mary that a comparison between primate and human genitals is not a fitting topic for dinner conversation with an archbishop’s wife. By the time Mary met her estranged family in England and came into her inheritance, she was a proper lady, groomed to marry her cousin Sir Charles.

Appearances, however, are delightfully deceiving. All suppositions are negated by the text of “The Changeling,” an unpublished novel by Mary in which she reveals herself to be Henry, the transvestite, who, when Mary died on the island, determined to claim her inheritance through living a role of delicious deception.

Quentin Bell, heir to the Bloomsbury tradition, serves it well with this remarkable first novel. Packed with literary and historical allusions as well as caricatures of Bloomsbury intimates, this novel succeeds on the strength of its entertaining premise and its witty style. Bell creates a tongue-in-check amalgam of Victorian literary hallmarks and then carefully lampoons each one. The result is a fresh, funny novel which is sure to be enjoyed by mystery devotees and Henry James veterans alike.