Book review: The Romantic, by William Boyd

Based on the true story Cashel Ross – a 19th century soldier, farmer, writer and felon who fought at Waterloo and may or may not have met Byron and Shelley – William Boyd’s new novel is one of his best, writes Allan Massie

William Boyd
William Boyd

Born in 1799, Cashel Greville Ross spent his early childhood in County Cork, apparently cared for by an aunt who was employed as a Governess for the daughters of the local landowner. He died, after an adventurous life, in 1882, leaving a hundred pages of autobiography, notes, letters, bills and receipts.

These came into the possession of William Boyd who, finding the material inadequate for a biography, chose to write Cashel’s story as a novel. From time to time he supplements this work of the imagination with footnotes such as you commonly meet in – well – a biography. It is admirably and convincingly done, so much so that, after reading a chapter set in Pisa where Cashel meets Byron and Shelley, I consulted the index of Leslie Marchand’s incomparable edition of Byron’s letters and journals to see if there was any mention of Cashel, as there surely should have been since Boyd tells us that Byron’s interest in him was aroused when he was told that Cashel was a wounded veteran of Waterloo, though only an adolescent drummer-boy then. But there was no mention of Cashel Ross. So I admire the self-denial which Boyd displays in not sending Cashel (who had also served in the Army of the East India Company to accompany Byron to the Greek War of Independence. It would have made a fine chapter.

Happily there is no shortage of incident in Cashel’s long and varied life. The plot is a rambling one, so much so that this may be called a picaresque novel, which answers with a splendid and convincing affirmative to Scott’s question: “what is the plot for but to bring in fine things?” There is a cornucopia of fine things here.

The Romantic, by William Boyd

Here the reviewer should exercise the same self-restraint and resist the temptation to give a brief summary of Cashel’s varied and remarkable life, from his slightly mysterious childhood in Ireland and Oxford to his death (with its literary echo) in Venice. Suffice to say that Cashel’s story is richly varied, full of incident, and his life is remarkable, yet authentically and even, in some respects, conventionally, Victorian – true anyway to the conventions of the Victorian novel, though, happily, not at all Dickensian, Dickens being always dangerously magnetic for later novelists. There is more of Thackeray and Trollope here, something of Meredith’s splendid Adventures of Harry Richmond, even of the mostly forgotten and always underrated Ouida. Yet The Romantic is in no sense a pastiche. Boyd’s voice is his own. His research has been assiduous. When Cashel farms in Massachusetts, you will even learn about brewing and the introduction of German beer in America.

Boyd is 70 this year and this is his 17th novel – there have also been collections of short stories, plays and film scripts. His has been a remarkable career, not, I think, sufficiently honoured. Though he has, I’m sure, friends as well as admirers in the literary world, he has never belonged to a mutual-admiration group. He is not much given to public or political statements, or to striking attitudes (although he did sign co-sign an open letter in 2014, along with 200 other public figures, urging Scots not to vote for independence). He writes novels for himself of course, as almost all novelists do, but they are directed to the general reader, not to any clique. He is a thoroughgoing professional, a skilled craftsman, a writer who makes hard writing easy and pleasurable reading.

In the introductory author’s note to The Romantic, he remarks that fiction goes further than the “documented facts” of a biography – beyond “that boundary of the documented palisade”. Fiction is the imagination playing on experience. Boyd has known this for a long time and acted on his knowledge. Other novels have, like this one, been presented as imagined biographies or memoirs. The Romantic, always enjoyable, ranks with two of his best: The New Confessions and Any Human Heart. Both were intelligent and engrossing, novels you lived with. Both told a fine story very well. The Romantic does just that. It’s not fashionable, but then Boyd has never really been that. This is to his credit. It also means that he should continue to be read when darlings of fashion find their books first dated, and then ignored.

The Romantic, by William Boyd, Viking, 451pp, £20