Thomas B(ertram) Costain Earl W. Foell - Essay

Earl W. Foell

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

["The Tontine"] is not nearly so grim … as its title would suggest. In fact, the great Waterloo Tontine that was hatched by an unsavory criminal boss hard on the heels of Wellington's historic victory provides only the mere framework for this sprawling Dickensian romance. The meat that plumps out its two large volumes is a very palatable, lively picture of England during the industrial revolution….

Mr. Costain is a good story teller. His action moves, however heavily loaded with detail. His characters are "characters," not unlike those of Dickens or, perhaps, Damon Runyon. His plot traces the lives of four generations of the above-mentioned families in alternating episodes (sometimes involving one family, sometimes all three) that raise almost more suspense in transit than at the final climax when the results of the tontine once more take the center of the stage.

And Mr. Costain knows his period setting down to the last finial on a duke's antique highboy, the most minute pungency in a Bermude garden. With no break in the speedy pace he sets for unraveling his many plots and subplots, historian Costain sketches in the details of a complete nineteenth century backdrop for his characters to play upon. And although none of these characters is explored very deeply, the sum total of the author's having developed such a gallery of distinctive, colorful individuals and such a turbulent, tactile setting is that he successfully presents the characters of a whole age.

There are drawbacks, of course. Many of his actors seem to be almost entirely black or white, sweet or conniving. The love stories sometimes have a courtly, Victorian unnaturalness about them. And occasionally Mr. Costain's headlong pace is slowed to a zestless canter by his tendency to overdescribe furniture and furnishings.

But then it is really the author's antique-collector spirit which makes this venture into the lively not-too-distant past such a general success. To those who, like this reviewer, were brought up on family reading from Dickens (one adventure sequence per weekend), "The Tontine", should be a pleasing find.

Earl W. Foell, "Sprawling Dickensian Romance," in The Christian Science Monitor, September 29, 1955, p. 11.