Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 560

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.

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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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