Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 738

ROGUE HERRIES is the first novel of a tetralogy that traces in detail the story of an English family over a period of two hundred years. The novel, like the other installments of the Herries chronicle, is an ambitious effort on the part of Hugh Walpole. In addition to offering a work that conforms to the criteria of a “traditional” novel—characterized by memorable characters and a well-constructed plot—he incorporates features that have become indicative of his own personal style.

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Most prominent in ROGUE HERRIES is the youthfulness and enthusiasm of its tone. The major characters, while differing in other ways, share a common zest for life. Francis, in the midst of his curious moods and mysterious motivations, loves drinking, cockfighting, and bullbaiting with other high-spirited men, and he relishes taking his horse Mameluke out into the countryside. David, Francis’ son, is tame in nature compared to his father; he comes to love the valley and mountains that make up Borrowdale where the Herries family lives; it is an organic fusion—David becoming a part of everything around him—that characterizes him throughout his life. Sarah Denburn, David’s wife, enthusiastically joins forces with David to find a means of escape from her uncle so that she might partake of the full life she envisions as David’s mate. It is Walpole’s design to have this zest for life identify his positive characters, while lethargy, as seen in Uncle Pomfret and Aunt Janice, identifies the negative personalities.

The malevolent characters that exist in the novel, as well as in most of Walpole’s works, demonstrate that the author sees a continuous conflict in the universe between good and evil forces. This theme is apparent in the stormy relationship between Francis Herries and his wife, Margaret, the former representing evil, the latter good, if docility can be defined as “good”; in the tragic execution of Mrs. Wilson, resulting from the people of Grange’s ill-founded supposition that she was a witch and caused the death of her friend, Hannah Mounsey; and, again, in the tenuous relationship between Francis and Mirabell Starr, with Francis’ devoted love identifying the good, and Mirabell’s incapacity to love after the death of her young man, Harry, representing the evil. Behind much of this war between good and evil, Walpole places the influence of the sensational, the supernatural forces, as a prime cause. Witches, warlocks, and magic spells are shown to play an influential role in the minds and the lives of characters in this and in other Walpole novels.

Although the novel concerns itself with a prevailing theme of good versus evil, presents a consistent backdrop of actual historical events, and offers many subplots—the development of David and the story of Sarah Denburn, to name only two—the story is primarily about one person. It is the story of Francis Herries, the “rogue,” and his search for self-identity. Through reports from many different viewpoints, including his own, Francis’ actions appear rather impetuous and largely uncontrolled. Walpole makes the chaotic nature of the elder Herries more apparent by employing a “doubles” device. In this case, the orderly, even-tempered personality of David counterbalances the disordered tempestuousness of his father. There are other “doubles” in the novel—for example, Sarah’s vivacity counters David’s reserve—but none are so clearly outlined as the pattern involving Francis and David. At the same time, Francis frequently questions the motives that prompt his behavior, although he offers no substantial answers; he recognizes his imperfections, but he cannot find cures for them. In fact, the only near-resolution in the quest for self-realization that drives Francis on remains quite obscure. He somehow finds in Mirabell Starr the embodiment of his visionary “great white horse” and, consequently, fulfillment in his life. Walpole supplies no clear reason why Mirabell should serve such a vital function. Perhaps it is because she is Francis’ first true love or because her gypsy ways exert some magical influence upon him. The reader’s imagination is the final judge in this matter, as Walpole may very well have intended from the beginning.

Despite the unanswered questions, ROGUE HERRIES is a substantial accomplishment as a novel. Walpole’s attention to careful plot and character development, the lively narrative pace, and his devotion to detail in physical and topographical setting and their influence upon the story, make the first volume of the Herries chronicle fine reading.

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