THE FORTRESS is the third part of the six-part Herries chronicle, which covers more than two hundred years of English social history. The present work portrays the later life of Judith Paris and her quarrel with Walter. The scope of the chronicle is vast, and THE FORTRESS alone covers a space of more than fifty years and a host of people. Although at times THE FORTRESS stalls among the multitude of characters and their gossip, it has considerable narrative power. Hugh Walpole must be considered a competent popular novelist.
THE FORTRESS, while presenting important events in the story of the Herries family, is probably the weakest segment of the Herries chronicle. Although the action is intense in many spots, Walpole seems to feel the need to pad this novel with unnecessary descriptions of scenery and of social gatherings. Probably the strongest aspect of THE FORTRESS is its predominant theme of the conflict between good and evil forces. This theme informs all the novels in the Herries chronicle; therefore, the present novel is, in spite of its weaknesses, an important link in the series.
The main impetus for the novel’s action is the continuation of the “broken fan” feud begun in the preceding novel, JUDITH PARIS. The feud itself is a rather tepid affair, but the events and consequences that spring from it comprise the most intense action. This feud and Walter Herries’ egocentric greed for power and possessions lead to the death of Jennifer Herries, leaving Judith Paris to see the battle out to its conclusion, as well as providing the basis for the conflict between John and Uhland Herries, which ends in the tragic death of both. In the context of the events issuing from the feud, the thematic conflict of good versus evil is seen not so much in the senseless, petty indignation shown by one side of a family toward another, but, more important, in the abuse of wealth, power, and prestige when in the hands of one like Walter Herries. The Francis Herries side of the family and of the feud represents the moral, humane, positive elements in society. In the same fashion, the conflict between John and Uhland Herries does not merely involve the misfit’s wrath toward the rest of the more normal world but demonstrates that jealousy can lead to tragic consequences like that of Uhland’s, if allowed to be fed and to go unchecked—as Walter allowed it.
To complement and strengthen the thematic significance of the Herries feud, Walpole also presents a picture of the growing Chartist movement. By his involvement in the movement, we see Adam Paris as the vehicle by which it is made clear that the type of power and status that Walter seeks represents the same evil oppression of the innocent commoners by the upper classes throughout England. In terms of thematic content and continuity, therefore, THE FORTRESS, like other novels in the chronicle, is largely a well-crafted work.
Although the action is intense at various times, the overall narrative pace is impeded by such digressions as “The Summer Fair” chapter and much of “Judith and Adam in London,” both in part 1, as well as other instances throughout the novel. These indulgences in the description of scenery or social gatherings are somewhat enlightening as to the milieu of the novel, but otherwise they do little to advance thematic purpose. Furthermore, after the tragic murder-suicide scene in “Skiddaw Forest” (part 3), the novel loses a great deal of its force. The last two hundred pages do introduce Vanessa, the protagonist of the novel to follow, but the rest is largely trivial.
A further weakness in THE FORTRESS is that it lacks a paramount character upon whom the author and reader can focus attention. Judith Paris is less a strong protagonist in the second novel than the “rogue” was in the first, but there is even less of a defined protagonist in this third novel. The characterization of Judith Paris is strong; but with reference to the novel bearing her name, she is little changed. The characterization of John, Adam, and Uhland are fairly complete but lack the thoroughness that would make any of them central figures. Walpole does go far enough with his major characters to be congratulated on making them memorable, but, as in the case of narrative pace, THE FORTRESS suffers in the area of characterization as well.
THE FORTRESS marks another stage in the momentous task that Walpole attempted in his Herries chronicle. In spite of the third novel’s weaknesses, much of it is still very much a credit to Walpole’s craftsmanship and an important link in the continuing story of the Herries family.