Quincunx – summary and notes

by Charles Palliser
1989/ 802 pages -(Kindle)
rating:  9 / contemp fiction – UK

“A quincunx /ˈkwɪn.kʌŋks/ is a geometric pattern consisting of five points arranged in a cross, with four of them forming a square orrectangle and a fifth at its center.[1]  It forms the arrangement of five units in the pattern corresponding to the five-spot on six-sided diceplaying cards, or dominoes.” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Quincunx

Oh what a long, delicious, cozy read! I read this because I so dearly loved Rustication by the same author which I read with a group a few months ago.  This book is supposed to be “better” according to the accounts I’ve read.  We’ll see.

After I got through about 100 pages I started a bit of research while trying to avoid spoilers.  It seems this is a VERY complex and twisted novel with puzzles inside of  puzzles and layers of ambiguity. It’s also historically dense and accurate.  Comparison are made to Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose and other historical puzzle novels.   There are a lot of scholarly-type web pages about the book because it’s a parody of Dickens – (a LOT of Dickens) – overlaid with post-modern ideas and devices.  lol –  I love Dickens and have read many of his novels. This is like a Dickens novel as though it were  written in the 21st century – with accuracy in the historical details,  less surety in the moral code, and not so much humor. The ambiguity on several levels is distinctly post-modern.

The narrative is divided into five Parts,  one for each family, each Part has five Books, and each Book has 5 Chapters.  A series of quincunx?  But the plot is set out chronologically except for some basic backstory.  There are also five important trees, five statues and five roses marking the five families; there’s even a five-spot on the die rolled by Jemmy. (There are lots of other fives in the book, too, but not every one is related to this puzzle.)

The family names are Huffam (one of Dickens’ middle names),  Mompesson, Clothier, Palphramond and Maliphant.  Maps, little family trees and an index of names are helpfully included – (not sure about how helpful the maps will be).   Each Part has the relevant family shield on the opening page.  I have no ambition to understand all the intricacies of  this novel.  – I’ll just kick back and enjoy, researching what interests me.

Much of the book is very well researched historical material turned into fiction. There are whole sections basically describing the situation into which Johnny has fallen – the poor and poorer areas of London which Dickens briefly described, Palliser details. (He spent 12 years laboriously writing and researching the material for this novel.)

Part 1 – The Huffams

The tale starts out with a luscious and Victorian-like setting and writing which quickly draws me in.  Names are usually used in the remainder of the book but at various times, the first chapter, adjectives like “Power” or “Law” or “Equity” replace names.  This means something in terms of the themes Palliser is playing with.  Interesting – very Dickensian in some dark way.

The real story line begins with a small boy, Johnnie Mallamphy, trying to figure out his family tree, who his father is and so on and that leads to a story of family secrets, wills, property and so on. Much of the story is told with Johnnie as first person narrator but this alternates with a third person omniscient (like Bleak House).   The cook of the family tells Johnnie an outline of his family story, but there is much to be filled in.  Mary keeps Johnnie in hiding,  but he’s an intelligent and very curious boy so he discovers the family next door, the Sir Perceval and Lady Mompesson (Hougham?) and Henrietta – age about 10. Later in the chapter the Mompessons try to buy the papers Mary holds,  but she refuses to sell them.

Johnnie and his mother are the victims of an attempted break-in and robbery, their movements are watched, he is kidnapped, and so on. There are spies amongst them and almost everyone is suspect.  Johnnie and Henrietta finally meet and pledge their affection with rings. Mary’s funds are dwindling and she is swindled by an adviser. They finally leave for London where the Mompessons have moved (except for Henrietta).

Mary is a rather naive and trusting character, she thinks she’s a “lady,” although in pauper’s circumstances.   Johnnie is starting to get suspicious of folks who want their trust – even Bissett, his nurse,  but Johnnie makes his own errors in judgement, too.

Mary apparently has possession of a codicil to a will which was signed by her grandfather – at least some of the other families want to destroy this codicil desperately – to the point of murder. This is why she and her son Johnnie have to stay in hiding. There are other documents Mary’s enemies are after – the birth certificate and the marriage license, for example, which might further validate the codicil if it is found.

Part 2:  The Mompessons

In London where John and Mary have changed their name to Offland they are robbed of their trunks and then decide to go to the widow of Mr Forisquince – Jemima.  Johnnie is suspicious of Jemima as she won’t help them and seems to want them to trust Mr Sancious. Mary is starting to trust Johnnie but won’t tell him the whole story.

Mary can’t find work as either a governess or an260px-English_School,_19th_Century,_Snow_Hill,_Holburn,_London embroiderer. They move to cheaper rooms (getting cheated in the deal) and there is no money from Bissett.

Mrs Forisquince and Mr. Sancious find they have “interests in common.”  They call Mary “Mrs Clothier” and note that one “Mr Clothier” is seeking her.

Mary sells her clothes and the canister for rent and food money,  but refuses to sell other sentimental items including the papers she holds. Johnnie is angry. Their remaining goods are repossessed, there is a warrant out for her and Bissett is implicated.  Johnnie manages to warn Mary and they escape.  They can’t find anywhere to stay looking for the Digweeds (very poor, briefly met in prior chapters). They land at the house of a family named Isbister where they work in exchange for lodging and a few shillings. Johnnie is suspicious but Mary wants to stay.

Then Johnnie finds himself involved with Isbister’s real money-maker, transporting the dead to sell, as in A Tale of Two Cities, but the gang he does this with is redolent of Fagan’s group in Oliver Twist. And where the Dickens books are funny, Pallister’s book has no humor.

Mary doesn’t really want to leave the Isbister household – she is neither a sweet Dickens heroine nor an evil Dickens villain.  Johnnie makes her – he’s acting grown up now and his mother has declined.   They find Miss Quillam in a slum and she lets them live there.

Palliser goes to great lengths to provide historical details – page after page of descriptions of London during the times.

A show with Punch and Joan puppets is very political – (Punch’s wife’s original name was Joan, not Judy):  The puppeteers are a pair named Silverlight and Pentecost who seem to symbolize chance vs will.   Johnnie is robbed but saved by a couple of guys who turn out to be political radicals. p. 223  Life gets harder and grimmer.  Miss Quillam reports her life story.  Much of this is historical background on poverty in 19th century England,  London especially. Mr Palliser is windy, what other authors cover in a couple page he takes a chapter to do.

**http://gix.pagesperso-orange.fr/quincunx/quin_pentesilv.htm**  (increase the size – interesting little piece on Silverlight (illuminates – narrator? – and Pente (5) cost ($$).

Mr Sancious continues to look for Mary because Mr Clothier is paying him. Barbellion is also looking for her but he’s looking for her for the Mompessons. Vulliamy says he’s found Mary through a pawnbroker.  Miss Quillam turns up with Mr Barbellion.  No one trusts anyone and it’s Johnnie who is most suspicious.  Mary and John escape to Mrs Fortisquince who sets up a deal with Sir Perceval which gets upset by a visit from the bailiff who takes all their money. But Perceval buys the codicil in exchange for money and Johnnie’s going to a school.

Johnnie is taken to the school far removed from London in order to keep him alive which is necessary to Sir Perceval. . Mom will be broke when she pays all her bills in London.  At Johnnie’s school there is incredible abuse by the owners/masters of the “farm.”  He Discovering a student with the name of Maliphant – one of the beneficiaries on the codicil – he decides to attempt an escape – succeeds.

He finds his mother but she has sunk to being in a brothel and in such desperate straights –  she’s almost insane. He can only take her to a place where the bed is almost free and there are others all around.  She dies there but not before she tears out several pages from her day book where she’s kept notes. They are destroyed.

Book 3
The Clothiers

Mrs Fortisquince and Mr Sancious discuss the situation Mary is dead – they need Johnnie and it appears Mrs F is going to invest in something Mr S suggests.

Mary’s  clothes are stolen while he looks into a burial.   He makes sure she is buried as properly as possible.  At some point Johnnie then goes to the old Hougham cemetery and finds the names on the headstones and the old archives of births, deaths, marriages, etc.

He is destitute – goes to see Stephen’s brother but he is no help. He reads his mother’s day book and the papers which all turn out to be nothing much – possibly the ramblings of a demented woman – hair-splitting the legal niceties.

David Mompesson goes for legal advise and finds himself with a dilemma as long as they think Mary and/or Johnnie is alive.

There is a strange little theme underlying and woven throughout the novel – one of chance vs pattern, fate vs choice –  Johnnie at times feels he is fated to this or that, the other characters battle the ideas, too and sometimes a few of them expound on it.

Johnnie finds the Digweed residence and is told where someone named  “Barney” is  (that name has come up a couple times).  So he walks further and you keep thinking he must be at the bottom of society but then he lands with the shelter-less – below homeless.   How far down can he go?  This is half-way through the book.

Barney took him in and it seems that Johnnie has fallen in with the old Isbister crowd –  like Fagan’s group (there’s even a character called Nan here).  They seem to be divided into gangs which are enemies of each other.  They are staying in a huge old mansion which is only half built or half destroyed and thanks to a narrator intrusion and foresight, will be upgraded later – this also means that Johnnie will live to see that day.

Johnnie is horrified when he realizes that these folks are criminals but, “What did it mean to be ‘evil?'”  – He ponders the ideas of Mr Pentecost and Silverlight. (see page 220 on) The people he was with, the Mompessons,  had treated him very badly but these folks had fed him and sheltered him, brought him into their circle.  ???  They take him to watch the hanging of their member, Peg.  Now he realizes he needs to escape.


Marshalsea Prison

But he reads his mother’s pages.  Seems whether or not his mother really does have a valid claim to the property is in question.  (This is NOT Dickens!) Her diary goes through the whole story from when Mary was a girl living with her father, married to Peter (which wasn’t a marriage).  The story continues through the times we know of already from Johnnie’s perspective. It’s an interesting structure for a novel.

Then he goes to his grandfather Clothier but is refused – meets a boy on the streets who takes him to the house of a girl named Emma – they take him in but who knows why – kindness? Loss of their own boy?  He reviews the whole story for Emma. We now have it from the book itself, from Mary’s point of view (probably for the background in paternity) and finally now the whole thing is brought up to date – about 60% in the book.

So the Porteous family tries to adopt him which has to go through the courts.  Johnnie gets  a bad case of the nerves when he knows Mrs Fortisquince will be there and he sees Mr Barbellion. Then he hears his lawyer say he has lost his senses and the boy refuses to be adopted.  He’s carried out and runs into Harry Bellringer, Stephen’s brother. It seems everything is connected as Johnnie prepares to run away again.

Mrs Fortisquince and Mr Sancious have a chat – very suspicious.

Johnnie is seriously unwell – visions and dreams – but he puts the connections together and is more scared than ever.  Daniel Clothier,  Peter’s brother, Johnnie’s uncle, is Emma’s father who wants to adopt him – what they really want to do is kill him so that their father or grandfather can inherit the entire Hougham estate. Emma’s trying.

Johnnie lands in the asylum where he meets his father.  Father later commits suicide and Johnnie is kept there but saved by the Digweeds.  Who is keeping him alive?


Flower and Dean Street –

Historical accuracy – “Flower and Dean Street” was notorious for Jack the Ripper’s activities in the 1880s.

With the Digweeds, Johnnie starts to suspect everyone – he’s speculating and speculating about how they could have been so conveniently located and willing to spend money to get him well – Mompesson money?

Now Johnnie explores the underground tunnels of London which were really open sewers merging into the subterranean rivers.
And the plot thickens and meanders and connects just like the sewers and the rivers – it seems no one, including Johnnie’s grandfather,  is innocent – perhaps Johnnie and his parents are as close as possible – ??

Then while with the Digweeds a lot more of the story comes out and it’s NOT all conspiracy but neither is it all chance.  There is a lot of conspiracy in it but there is also some chance.  Quite good by the standards of Silver and P.

The book is way too long – in normal crime books these connections are made quite quickly but Johnny has to go through the thinking process garnering one little fact at a time while exploring all of the seediest London and its denizens.

Johnnie decides to call himself John Huffam and goes to visit Escreet, his grandfather’s attorney to get that side of the story.  And the old man goes way back to the Plantagenets and the War of the Roses.  (I think he confuses Johnnie with his father, but … )

The upshot of it all is that the Clothiers want to destroy the wills and codicils or get Johnnie and Mary dead.  (The Clothiers are bad guys,  but Johnnie’s father is/was one of them and Sancious is bad, too.)  But Johnnie may be illegitimate because there is no evidence that his mother (Mary Huffam)  and father (John Clothier)  married.   Furthermore, the will was changed and then the old man Jeofory Huffam promptly died.

But now Johnnie thinks he knows where the will is and he and the Digweeds are going to go steal it back via the sewers.  They  don’t get them of course and Mr  Digweed is seriously injured but the idea sticks and Johnnie gets a job inside the house via Mrs Digweed.

Now we have a sizable section on how the rich live with many, many servants and meals for everyone and so on. Johnnie does his best as kitchen help,  but the work is long and hard.  He’s looking for a way to find and snatch the will.  He meets Henrietta again, kept alive by the Mompessons.

Well,  Johnnie manages to solve the lock puzzle and get the will then get away.  Having nowhere to go now,  he goes to Henry Bellringer, the brother of a boy who died in the foster-care place.  Henry is now at Chancery. Henry helps him and they go to present the will to a judge –

Alas, Johnnie is ambushed by helpers of Clothier – who tipped him off? – and in a rather drawn out scuffle,  Clothier dies instead of Johnnie but not before the will is burned.  Johnnie escapes and tries to live low on the money from the old aunt he met while working at the Mompessons.

But Henry finds him and now Henry is the enemy – he’s kept the original will Johnnie brought with him and wants 1/3 of the proceeds to take it to Chancery.  Johnnie refuses wealth and safety (including Henrietta’s safety) in exchange for poverty and danger because he can’t trust anyone and simply wants all this to go away.  He’ll let them declare him dead but Henry says that’s not going to happen because he, Henry, will tell.  Johnnie is attacked by Barney but gets away, injured.  Told Barney the will was in existence.

At the Mompesson’s christmas party Henry divulges the info that Johnnie lives. The story is told once again – there are so many parts to this story and they happen and then they are related to others and then to more others – over and over sometimes, the same story to different people with different angles on it.

Now an unidentified 1st person narrator describes the scene at the party and continues into a little lecture about Judgement, Merit, Talent, Insolence, Wealth, Power, Pattern, Understanding, Higher Duty, Justice and finally,  Philanthropy.

Johnnie is visited by Joey (Digweed – his good friend) and told of more connections this time between Henry and others. Henry is the “Harry” from Miss Quilliaim and it all clicks, all the connections between the families.

Henrietta is set to marry Henry so Joey and Johnnie set out after them in a 2-chapter chase. She is marrying him only because she believes Johnnie is dead. They leave a message and head to the chapel where the marriage and baptism records are held. Find they’ve been torn out but there are copies or something. So off to find Sukey from those 6 years ago. More answers from Sukey about the old burglary.

They find the couple, Henrietta and Bellringer, at the old abandoned Hougham mansion where Johnnie lived with his mother when the tale started. 6+ years prior.  They’re accompanied by several others, including Barbellion and Besset,  and then more arrive as they want to either find the will, oppose the marriage or something.  A shot is fired, David Mompesson, who thought Henrietta was going to marry him, shoots Bellringer. Joey saves Johnnie.  The Mompesson’s leave.

Johnnie says he can find the will.   Barbellion mentions the baptism and marriage records and Sukey enters to save the day. But we still don’t know who killed Johnnie’s grandfather, John Huffam (Umphraville).  At the end  Sancious and  Mrs Fortisquince (Sancious)  are alone in the old mansion room (Johnnie is hidden listening) when Escreet comes in and kills Sancious and leaves.  Mrs Sancious grabs the will and they leave only to fall into the hands of Barney – and another reinterpretation of events transpires.

“Though it is true that we can understand nothing without finding a pattern, I must warn you … not to impose such a pattern on the future… the concatenation of events is always more complicated and inexplicable than we like to imagine…  remember that a pattern — whether of the past or the future — is always arbitrary or partial in that there could always be a different one or a further elaboration of the same one. In the end we have to make a guess or hazard all upon the throw of the dice…”  (p. 755 – Kindle)



Historiographic metafiction?:
The Symbol Made Text: Charles Palliser’s Postmodernist Re-Writing of Dickens in The Quincunx    (incredible analysis)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s