*** DEBUG START ***
*** DEBUG END ***

Big house, big personalities

by
21 June 2013

Caroline Bowder reads a novel of the twilight of the Ascendancy

Footprint Upon Water
Barbara Fitzgerald
Somerville Press £11.99
(978-0-9573461-0-9)

IT IS A shame that Barbara Fitzgerald never enjoyed the success of her second, final novel, Footprint Upon Water. Turned down by Jonathan Cape, it was published by Blackwells only in 1983, a year after her death.

Now it is stylishly relaunched by the Irish publisher Somerville Press, and has made an excellent revival. In the tradition of other great Anglo-Irish writers, Fitzgerald was of good Protestant stock: her father was Archbishop of Armagh, and she married Edith Somerville's nephew. But, though we recognise the decaying gentility of a great Irish house ("Fellowescourt") as the backdrop, her dramatis personae surprise us with their forceful, often damaged, personalities.

A ruthless patriarch dies in debt, leaving his martinet daughter, Katharine ("the Pope"), to dominate her sisters and strive to bring up her niece, Susan, in her own strict religious mould. The pivotal aunt/niece relationship drives the narrative even when the two have separated. The unlikely male romantic lead is a wilfully self-sacrificing clergyman - he only just succeeds in preventing history repeating itself, despite his dreadful sister.

It is a wonderfully colourful novel, spanning half the 20th century: two world wars, the flu epidemic, 1916, and the Irish Civil War. Class and religion divide this rural society into "them" and "us", and its members watch each other tirelessly.

Unromantic but passionate, the characters are often left speechless, inhibited by their undeclarable feelings. This is one of the strengths of the book: its psychology is usually spot-on (Susan, "whispering her excuses to the toast-rack, left the room"; Dr Byrne's "words on the edge of his mouth, piled up and ready for utterance. He closed his mouth suddenly and they were swallowed up for ever").

The house itself is a character; so is the landscape; and both are described with heartfelt intensity - as are all the other members of the drama. It is a big book, and kept me entertained to the end.

Church Times Bookshop

Save money on books reviewed or featured in the Church Times. To get your reader discount:

> Click on the “Church Times Bookshop” link at the end of the review.

> Call 0845 017 6965 (Mon-Fri, 9.30am-5pm).

The reader discount is valid for two months after the review publication date. E&OE

The Church Times Archive

Read reports from issues stretching back to 1863, search for your parish or see if any of the clergy you know get a mention.

FREE for Church Times subscribers.

Explore the archive

Welcome to the Church Times

​To explore the Church Times website fully, please sign in or subscribe.

Non-subscribers can read four articles for free each month. (You will need to register.)