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Last Updated on January 11, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1728

First published: 1906

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Simulated autobiography

Time of work: Mid-nineteenth century

Locale: England

Principal Characters:

Joseph Vance, a man who wrote his memoirs

Mr. Christopher Vance, his father

Dr. Randall Thorpe, Joseph’s foster father

Lossie Thorpe, Dr. Thorpe’s daughter

Joe...

(The entire section contains 1728 words.)

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First published: 1906

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Simulated autobiography

Time of work: Mid-nineteenth century

Locale: England

Principal Characters:

Joseph Vance, a man who wrote his memoirs

Mr. Christopher Vance, his father

Dr. Randall Thorpe, Joseph’s foster father

Lossie Thorpe, Dr. Thorpe’s daughter

Joe (Beppino) Thorpe, her brother

Violet Thorpe, her sister

Nolly Thorpe, another brother

Bony MacAllister, Joseph’s business partner

General Desprez, Lossie’s husband

Janey Spencer, Joseph’s wife

Pheener, a maid

The Story:

Joseph Vance’s father was more often drunk than sober; but he was a good man and was never mean when he was drunk. Having lost several positions because of his drinking, he was in no way depressed. He took Joe with him to visit a pub on the night of his discharge from his last position. While there, he quarreled with a chimney sweep and lost the fight. Forced to spend some time in the hospital after the affair, he decided to give up his excessive drinking.

After his release from the hospital, he set himself up as a builder and drain repairman, by virtue of acquiring a signboard advertising his services. Mr. Vance knew nothing about the building trade, but he believed that it was his ignorance which would cause him to be a success at the business. He appeared to be right. His first job was for Dr. Randall Thorpe, of Poplar Villa, and Dr. Thorpe was so pleased with the work that he recommended Mr. Vance for more jobs until his reputation was such that he was much in demand. Mr. Vance took Joe with him on his first call at Poplar Villa. There, Joe met Miss Lossie Thorpe, the first real young lady he had ever seen. At this time Joe was nine years old and Lossie was fifteen, but he knew from the first meeting that she was to be his lady for the rest of his life.

When Dr. Thorpe learned that Joe was a bright boy, he sent him to school and made him almost one of the family. Lossie was like a sister to him; in fact, she called him her little brother and encouraged him in his studies. The Thorpe household also included young Joe Thorpe, called Beppino, a sister Violet, and another brother named Nolly. Joe Vance grew up with these young people, and Dr. Thorpe continued to send him to school, even to Oxford when he was ready. Although Dr. Thorpe had hoped that Joe Vance might excel in the classics, the boy found his interest in engineering. Beppino did grow up to be a poet, but he wrote such drivel that his father was disgusted. Meanwhile, a deep friendship had developed between Joe Vance and Lossie, a brother-and-sister love that made each want the other’s happiness above all else.

Mr. Vance’s business prospered so much that he and his wife took a new house and hired a cook and a maid. After Joe had finished at Oxford, he joined his old school friend, Bony Macallister, and they established an engineering firm. Their offices were in the same building with Mr. Vance. By that time, Lossie had married General Desprez, a wealthy army officer, and had moved with him to India. Joe suffered a great deal at the loss of his dear friend, but he knew that General Desprez was a fine man who would care for Lossie and love her tenderly.

Shortly after Lossie sailed for India, Joe’s mother died. His father began to drink once more. Joe tried to think of some way to help his father. Joe thought that if he married, his wife might influence his father, and he asked Janey Spencer, a friend of Lossie, to marry him. She accepted, but when she learned that Joe wanted to marry her only for the sake of his father, she broke the engagement and did not relent until two years later. By that time, Joe knew he really loved her, and she married him. In the meantime, Joe’s father had married Pheener, his housemaid, and for a time she kept him from the bottle.

After Janey and Joe had been married for five years, they took a trip to Italy. The ship caught on fire, and almost all on board were lost. When Janey refused to get into a lifeboat without her husband, they tried to swim to shore. Janey was drowned. Joe’s life was empty without her, and only his visits with Dr. Thorpe and his letters from Lossie gave him any comfort.

Joe’s business prospered, as did his father’s; but one day Mr. Vance, while drunk, caused an explosion and a fire in the building. He was seriously injured, and he seemed to be ruined because he had let his insurance lapse. Before the catastrophe, however, he had given Pheener a tiara worth fifteen thousand pounds, and with the money received from the sale of the jewels, he was able to start his business anew.

In the meantime, Beppino was grieving his family by an affair with a married woman. For the sake of the Thorpes, Joe took Beppino to Italy. On Joe’s return, Beppino remained behind. When Beppino returned, he met and married Sibyl Perceval, an heiress, and the family believed he had changed his ways. Beppino, however, died of typhoid fever shortly after his marriage, and then Joe learned what Beppino had done while in Italy. He had married an Italian girl, using the name of Joe Vance, and she had a child. The Italian girl had died, too, and her relatives wrote to Joe in the belief that he was the father. The general and Lossie had come home for a visit, and Joe told General Desprez of Beppino’s duplicity. The two men agreed that Lossie must never know of her brother’s deed. Joe went to Italy and told the girl’s relatives that he was a friend of the baby’s father. He arranged to send money for the boy’s care.

Shortly afterward, Joe went to Brazil on an engineering project. While there, he sent for Beppino’s boy and adopted him. He spent the next twenty years of his life in Brazil. He heard from Lossie and Dr. Thorpe frequently, but otherwise he had no connection with England. His father died, and Pheener remarried. While Joe was in Brazil, Lossie heard rumors from Italy that he was the baby’s real father. She was so disappointed in her foster brother that she never wrote again. Joe returned to England. Although he lived near Lossie, he did not see her or let her know he was back in the country. The boy was attending school in America. Lossie’s husband died without telling the real story about the child, and Joe would not tell the truth even to save himself in Lossie’s eyes. He wrote the story in his memoirs but left his papers to be burned after his return to Brazil.

A maid, however, burned the wrong package, and a publisher’s note completed Joe’s story. Lossie found a letter from Beppino in some of her husband’s papers and surmised the truth. She found Joe Vance before he left for Brazil and made him confess that he had acted only to save her feelings. She begged Joe to forgive her. The two friends were reunited, went to Italy, and spent their remaining days together.

Critical Evaluation:

JOSEPH VANCE is the story of the life of Joseph Vance from his earliest recollections until the last years of his life. As William De Morgan states through the words of his main character, there is much that might have been left out, since there are many threads of the plot that are unimportant to the story. Humor and pathos are successfully mixed; the humor particularly is the quiet kind that makes readers chuckle. It comes largely from the character of Vance’s father, who firmly believes that to be a success a person must know absolutely nothing about doing the job he is hired to do. De Morgan gave his novel the subtitle “An Ill-Written Autobiography” but few of his readers will agree with him.

The influences of Sterne and Dickens are very clear in Joseph Vance. Sterne especially is evident in the tone of the narration, the descriptions of the characters, and in the philosophizing and digressions, for example, on Joe’s Father’s Hat and Human Nature. The author’s style is not as smooth and graceful as Sterne’s, however, resulting at times in a rather strained and arch humor. The protagonist’s father, for example, is too obviously intended to be a grand old “character.” The narrative vitality and sense of place and the minor characters suggest Dickens. The lower-class dialect is often skillfully utilized, but it is carried to the point of preciousness; mispronunciations and absurd grammar alone do not make a character comic. Nevertheless, the story is crowded with telling and often amusing details, despite the occasionally excessive use of letters to move the story forward, and the minor characters are sketched with precise and vivid portraits.

For the most part, the development of the protagonist is interesting, although the narrative is sometimes confusing. Joseph’s bouts with education (especially geometry) and the results when he tries to demonstrate his new learning to his old friends are amusing. De Morgan’s power to create character and convey atmosphere provide the principal merits of the novel. Some of the scenes in the house of the Thorpe family, Joseph’s adopted relations and protectors, possess a quaint and touching charm.

De Morgan did not begin his career as a writer until after retiring from his first career as a ceramic artist and inventor. A member of the Pre-Raphaelite circle, he was famous for the quality and beauty of his glazes; much of his work with pottery and tiles is preserved in museums. His second career as a novelist brought him a wide literary reputation and considerable financial success. His last two works were published posthumously. JOSEPH VANCE, De Morgan’s first novel, is still considered his best fictional effort. The richness of the prose, the humor, and the delightful characterizations ensure the book a secure, if minor, place in English literature.

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