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Big house, big personalities

21 June 2013

Caroline Bowder reads a novel of the twilight of the Ascendancy

Footprint Upon Water
Barbara Fitzgerald
Somerville Press £11.99

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.

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