(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

Geologist and volcano expert Horace Nettleship has long ago lost his inherited Christian faith; the world to him seems “an infinitely empty, infinitely extensible accident.” Unwilling to confront or debate her husband’s negative affirmation of faith, Charlotte retreats from him psychologically, consumed by the task of leaving “footsteps on the sands of time by embroidering cream-jug covers or writing letters, or managing the servants.”

They speak only in public, their lack of intimacy extending from the bedroom to the dinner table—where they converse only with their daughter, Maudie, and never with each other. Into this static household one morning comes the promise of release, or, at least, diversion; Maudie receives two letters: one from her brother, Lionel, who declares his desire to become a priest, and another from her godfather, Waldo Chatterway, who announces his return from self-imposed exile on the Continent.

When Waldo, or Marvo, “the marvelous bore,” arrives, he becomes the catalyst for a series of events which signal both the coming of age of Maudie and the spiritual maturity of Lionel. He brings with him not only a sprightly, unsettling worldliness unknown to this staid and barren home, but also Timothy Lupton, the living embodiment of unbridled sensuality and forbidden passion.

The remainder of this complex satire of the crumbling Victorian ethos evolves as a tragedy of errors which focuses on the...

(The entire section is 519 words.)