Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 731

Hugh Walpole wrote the first page of FORTITUDE in Edinburgh on December 24, 1910. He came to regard this place and date as lucky, because the book enjoyed immense popularity when it was published in 1913. Thereafter, whenever possible, he had the habit of starting his other novels—thirteen of them—in the same city on Christmas Eve, even if he had to travel some distance for the occasion. The circumstance is worth remembering, for Walpole is best understood as an unabashed sentimentalist.

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Although he counted as his close friends such masters of psychological Realism as Henry James, Joseph Conrad, Arnold Bennett, and W. Somerset Maugham among others, Walpole is curiously Victorian rather than modern in his approach to fiction. FORTITUDE, a sentimental romance that imitates the format of realistic “apprenticeship” (or “education”) novels successful at the time—Forster’s THE LONGEST JOURNEY (1907), Wells’s TONO-BUNGAY (1908), Bennett’s CLAYHANGER (1910), Compton Mackenzie’s SINISTER STREET (1911), to mention a few examples—is different from representative books of this type. Subtitled “Being a True and Faithful Account of the Education of an Explorer,” FORTITUDE is neither true (that is to say, mostly autobiographical) nor is it an authentic “education” novel. To be sure, the early part of the book recalls the author’s own miserable childhood; Peter Westcott’s public school resembled Walpole’s unhappy experiences at Marlow; and two minor characters are based upon real people: Mrs. Launce upon Mrs. Belloc Lowndes and Henry Galleon upon Henry James. Nevertheless, the novel as a whole is not the story of Walpole’s life. Moreover, the education theme is only fitfully developed. Peter, Walpole’s protagonist, learns from life a single and rather simplistic lesson: courage and fortitude are necessary for success. Walpole states the theme, which is no more than a truism, in the opening sentences of the novel: “’Tisn’t Life that matters! ’Tis the courage you bring to it.” As the book progresses, Peter comes to understand the importance of this advice in his education to maturity.

From the standpoint of a modern reader, however, it is Peter’s lack of maturity at all stages of his career that weakens the force of the novel. He is sentimental and naive to the point of foolishness. He falls hopelessly in love with the self-indulgent Clare Rossiter when their fingers happen to touch. Clare proves to be a cool wife and careless mother; bored with her marriage, she finally runs off with a lover, one of Peter’s former schoolboy chums. Shortly after this scene, Walpole melodramatically writes: “Peter Westcott was dead.” The statement, however, must be taken as hyperbole. Peter is by no means dead; he is only wretched. Because of his obvious immaturity, he continues to be wretched throughout most of the novel. Structurally, the three major crises of the book concern Peter’s misery on the occasions of the deaths of his mother, of his son, and of his true friend Nora Monogue. Only with the last tragedy is he able to evidence some maturity. Because life is difficult, he decides that one must face it with courage. If Nora (whom he had once described, with typical infelicity, as “the nicest ugly woman to look at I’ve ever seen”) is able to die with dignity, Peter resolves that he can live with fortitude.

Five years after he published his novel, Walpole wrote in his diary: “FORTITUDE seems to me now an incredibly childish and naive affair.” Despite its obvious faults—sentimentality that approaches mawkishness, melodramatic exaggeration, feeble psychology—the novel nevertheless charmed readers in 1913 and continues to hold a dwindling but faithful audience. One reason for the survival of FORTITUDE is that the book is entirely sincere. Unlike other twentieth century sentimental romances that are written to produce calculated effects of pathos, Walpole’s novel is obviously heartfelt. Peter’s hatred of his father, his affection for Stephen Brandt (a friendship that is closer to love than is his supposed adoration for Clare), and his childhood terrors of punishment are episodes that are handled with fervor. Although Walpole is not a writer of Realism, he can simulate with realistic intensity the emotions that are close to his own feelings. Therefore, the reader, swept along by the author’s emotionalism more than by his fiction, may finally be moved by Peter’s trials as a child-man, vulnerable and alone, in a man’s world.

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