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Last Updated on January 11, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1812

First published: 1933

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Historical chronicle

Time of work: Late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries

Locale: England

Principal Characters:

Vanessa Paris, the daughter of Adam Paris

Benjie, her cousin and lover

Tom, Benjie’s son

Sally, the daughter of Vanessa and Benjie

Ellis, Vanessa’s husband

The Story:

Vanessa was fifteen years old when her grandmother, Judith Paris, died. At the funeral, Adam, her sincere but unpolished father, made a speech that was admired only by Vanessa and her mother, Margaret. Adam loved his mother well and spoke with too much sincerity. His numerous relatives would rather have heard a eulogy of the proud family of Herries.

At the funeral, Vanessa noticed everyone, and her beauty made even the most distant relatives notice her. She had special interest, however, for her cousin Benjie. She already knew she loved him. Benjie was a rascal who did not fit in well with his haughty family. He was capable of hard work and common sense for a while, but he had sporadic fits of wildness. Some of his relatives believed that no good could come from Benjie’s heritage. His uncle had killed his father. One grandfather had committed suicide. The other one was living out a mad dotage.

Vanessa also noticed hesitant, stiff Ellis Herries, her distant cousin. Ellis managed to remark that it was a nice day. As soon as Vanessa agreed, she ran out to meet Benjie.

Although Benjie was personable, Adam did not like her to take walks with him. Benjie kissed Vanessa, however, and she promised to marry him when she grew up. Vanessa was so good and beautiful that Benjie had qualms about such a promise. He told her the truth about his character and his wildness, and he attacked her faith in God. Vanessa, however, resolved to hold fast to her promise.

In 1880, Vanessa became engaged to Benjie. Still uneasy about his unworthiness, Benjie agreed that no one should know of the engagement and that they should not meet for two years. Then if they still wanted to do so, they would be married.

In the meantime, Vanessa went to London to stay with her city cousins. Dressed in fashionable clothes, lovely Vanessa soon became an admired belle. She had many proposals of marriage. The most insistent suitor was her cousin Ellis. Ellis was good and sober and already a respected financier; but Vanessa thought only of Benjie.

Vanessa returned home to Fell House to care for her ailing father and wait for the two years to end. Then, in 1882, Fell House burned down, and Adam perished in the blaze. Too distraught to think of marriage at that time, Vanessa put Benjie off. Several weeks later, she went to The Fortress to stay with Elizabeth, Benjie’s mother, and to await the return of her fiance. When he did come back, Vanessa knew that something had happened.

She soon learned the story. Sometime before, Benjie had become acquainted with the Halliday family and had been attracted to their daughter Marion. After Adam Paris died, he went to visit the Hallidays. Following an evening of gaiety, he went upstairs to bed. In this room, he found Marion, who was waiting for him at the urging of her mother. Marion became pregnant, and she and Benjie were married. Without bitterness, Vanessa wished him a happy marriage and went back to London.

At the age of twenty-six, honored as the reigning beauty of London society, Vanessa finally decided to give in to Ellis and be kind to him. Ellis and Vanessa were married, and Vanessa became the great lady of highly fashionable Hill House.

One day, quite by accident, she saw Benjie and his son Tom at the Jubilee Celebration. She did not talk with him, but she did learn that Marion had left Benjie for another man. After struggling with her inclinations for some time, she met Benjie again and visited with him as an old friend.

Meanwhile, it was becoming more and more impossible for her to live with Ellis. His mind was weakening rapidly, and he had delusions of persecution. To the outward eye, however, he still was the sober financier. One night, he locked himself and Vanessa in their room and announced that he intended to cut her throat and then his own. She talked him out of the notion, but she was afraid of him from that time on.

Then Ellis brought in two elderly cousins to take charge of the house and to spy on Vanessa. As his next step, he engaged an obliging doctor to interview his wife. Before Vanessa was quite aware of what was happening, she learned that she was to be confined in an asylum for the insane. In her fear and helplessness, she turned to Benjie for help. At last, when both were nearing age forty and without benefit of marriage, Vanessa and Benjie went away to live together.

Tom, Benjie’s son, and Vanessa became great friends; for a time, she lived a happy life at The Fortress. Gradually, Benjie’s absences from home became less frequent, and sometimes Vanessa would accompany him on his weeklong rambles. On one occasion, they were caught in a storm. Much upset and exhausted, he and Vanessa found shelter in a farmhouse, and there among strangers their daughter Sally was born.

The household at The Fortress, however, was soon destroyed. Ellis’ mind gave way completely, and he could amuse himself only by playing with toys. He frequently cried for Vanessa, until it seemed that he could not live long without her. At last, Vanessa took Sally to London and vowed she would stay with Ellis until he died.

Ironically, Ellis became stronger and better, and for years, Benjie could not see Vanessa. In fact, Vanessa died before Ellis. At her deathbed, Benjie and Ellis met without rancor.

The rest of the numerous Herries family were all stolid, respectable people, still pillars of Victorian rectitude. Only Benjie and Sally were free and untrammeled. Sally expected to marry Arnold Young, and she even became his mistress for a year. Arnold’s mother, however, objected to the marriage. Benjie’s reputation was bad, and Sally herself was illegitimate. At last, Arnold married another woman.

Benjie continued his irregular life. In South Africa, he had lost an arm fighting the Boers. Although he was more than sixty years old, Benjie served with the Russians in World War I. At the age of seventy, he was still brown of skin and spare of body. Sally, too, became respectable and redeemed herself in the eyes of her relatives. At a social gathering, she met a blind French veteran who was working for the League of Nations in Berlin. She married him and went to Berlin to aid the cause of international peace. From that time on, she rarely saw her father or any other members of the Herries family.

Benjie was the only member of the Herries family who remained unconventional. After he was seventy years old, he bought a caravan and with one manservant lived a gypsy life. He intended to spend his last days going to fairs and visiting farm folk. He faithfully performed his setting up exercises and took cold showers out of doors. The other Herries always said that he was truly the great-grandson of that Francis Herries who married Mirabell Starr, the gypsy—lusty old Rogue Herries of whom the family was now half ashamed, half proud.

Critical Evaluation:

VANESSA, the last novel in the Herries chronicle, brings the family to the 1930’s. Like its three predecessors, VANESSA is concerned with many people and many years, and the multiplicity of characters becomes necessarily more marked and confusing. Although many readers of the novel are lost in trying to follow the fortunes of so many descendants of the earlier Herries, Hugh Walpole does accomplish what appears to be a chief aim—to show that the strength of the Herries family is a strength of England and that its weakness is a national defect.

VANESSA is one of those British novels that seems to lack a certain quality of emotional involvement. The characters are carefully drawn and are placed against a detailed background, and their actions are elaborately choreographed, but the resulting production lacks the spark of life. One must admire the mind that so painstakingly created the huge chronicle of which VANESSA is a part, but effort and size alone do not make a book a notable literary work. Perhaps the problem is that Walpole overexplains: he announces a scene in advance and then presents it, or he interprets a scene immediately after, although only on a superficial level. There is no mystery to the characters; the reader does not feel compelled to ask “And then what?” about them. They are what they seem, no more and no less; and the prose lacks a compactness and tension which would make the reader want to read on; Walpole seems to have forgotten that his book is first composed of words, and these must be chosen with care. A novel should be a perfect blend of subject matter and technique.

Nevertheless, there are other reasons for reading the novel, despite its defects. It presents a broad and detailed panorama of the last years of Queen Victoria’s reign. Furthermore, the book makes clear the importance of the family in Victorian society. No individual can be completely alone in such a world. As one character states, the consequences of acts occurring now can affect the next generation. The book is the working out of such consequences for the latest members of the vast Herries clan. Walpole is sometimes perceptive in his picture of human relationships, all of which, according to one of the characters, carry potential dangers. This idea seems to be especially true with the impetuous Herries family. Whatever their personal involvements, however, they never lose sight of the fact that they are part of British history. They are proud of their place in society’s passing parade and guard it jealously. Early in the novel, they predict with both fear and scorn that another fifty years will bring about the end of social history—at least as they know it. Indeed a world war and worldwide depression do greatly transform the world in which the Herries had fought their way to the top.

As a sidelight, Vanessa’s plea for independence and equality for women is a vivid illustration of the continuing struggle for women’s rights which began in the nineteenth century. Although the reader finds it hard to believe in her fabulous beauty and charm, Vanessa is an intriguing character. As a precursor of modern woman, she is the most interesting and sympathetic person in the book, and, even after she dies, her presence continues to dominate the novel.

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