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Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 515

A Deal with the Devil is one of many late Victorian and early twentieth century novels written in the manner of Thomas Anstey Guthrie (1856-1934). Using the pseudonym F. Anstey, this English humorist and satirist wrote novels in which a fantastic device appeared in an otherwise realistic contemporary narrative, such...

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A Deal with the Devil is one of many late Victorian and early twentieth century novels written in the manner of Thomas Anstey Guthrie (1856-1934). Using the pseudonym F. Anstey, this English humorist and satirist wrote novels in which a fantastic device appeared in an otherwise realistic contemporary narrative, such as a father and son switching personalities or someone accidentally bringing a goddess to life. In Eden Phillpotts’ book, Daniel’s Faustian bargain is the sole fantastic element, and all action and conflicts emanate from it.

An implicit though central conflict is that between the two main characters, Daniel and Martha Dolphin. The latter epitomizes Victorian propriety yet must care for an old reprobate who, after his deal with the devil, reverts to his profligate youthful ways. Because Martha is the narrator, not only does her point of view color everything, but her increasing despair and weariness also pervade the novel. She ages while her grandfather becomes younger; as he increases in vigor, their frenetic nomadic life exacts its emotional toll on her. Martha is the utterly loyal Victorian woman; she advises, suggests, and protests, but ultimately accepts Daniel’s plan to spend almost all of his money during the ten years of the New Scheme (as Martha has dubbed it), though her expected inheritance will be gone. She supports him throughout their peregrinations and becomes his surrogate mother during his second childhood.

Because of her frankness and the precise details with which she relates everything, the plot of the novel remains credible despite the event at its core. Martha, for example, precisely describes changes in Daniel’s skin, speech, clothing, and other aspects of physical appearance as his years rapidly fade away; specific features of their many homes as they flee from one place to another; and such matters as his courtships and participation in the Henley regatta. She also is an important player in the unfolding action and reveals much about herself through her narrative. Supporting the realism are frequent reminders of her aging, in contrast to Daniel’s regression to childhood, and her increasing dependence on alcohol. Her epilogue dates the novel by its didacticism, and because of Martha’s central presence, the book is too firmly rooted in the late Victorian period despite its timeless theme. For example, ignoring the fact that Daniel obviously regretted none of the excesses of his first century and committed many of the same follies all over again during his New Scheme decade, dutiful and deferent Martha exonerates him from responsibility for his fate, saying he “was most unfairly treated,” and erects a memorial to him in her village church.

In many of his more than two hundred novels, Phillpotts uses a familiar or traditional literary motif, gives it an unusual twist, and constructs an ingenious plot around it. A Deal with the Devil, his contemporary Faustian allegory and eighth book, reflects not only this practice but also the realism for which he was highly regarded in the early twentieth century, when his series of Dartmoor novels was compared to those by Thomas Hardy about Wessex.

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