Book Review | Lucas Malet’s ‘The Far Horizon’ (1907), or, the Twilight Renaissance of an Edwardian Bachelor

One of the perks of researching a new project – in this case, From Cervantes to Sunny Spain – is that until you actually nail down the final structure, pretty much anything can count as research. And so, aided by my newly-beloved Kindle, I’ve been splashing around in the balmy waters of late Victorian and Edwardian novels on all things related to Spain.

I discovered The Far Horizon during a speculative trawl through the Oxford Companion to Edwardian Fiction, which begins, tantalisingly, ‘Dominic Iglesias, son of a Spanish anarchist, devotes his life to the care of his saintly mother…’ . Fortunately, it looks as if at that point, my green highlighter and I moved on, for the Companion then proceeds to summarise the whole plot in a way that is scrupulously accurate, but – perhaps unsurprisingly in a work of this kind – somewhat lacking in oomph (that’s a technical term, obvs).

I’m not going to summarise the plot here, either, only to say that the novel is a whole lot more charming than the Oxford Companion would have you believe. Iglesias, who is in fact half Irish and half Spanish, cuts a melancholy figure, a fiftysomething bachelor who looked after his mother until her death, while making his living as a minor clerk at a London bank. The novel follows him as, newly retired, he struggles to make sense of what many would consider a wasted life. There’s love, blackmail, predatory spinsters, religion, suicide, predatory widows (and their equally predatory friends), polo, bankruptcy, and a great deal of humbuggery, gossip and social manoeuvring – as well as touching depictions of friendship, loyalty, and late-blooming romance.

Interestingly, Dominic’s Spanishness exists primarily as an underlying explanation for his character, rather than an explicit character trait in itself. It marks him out as physically and psychologically different from his companions, and allows us to read his spiritual journey in the context of early 20th-century ideas about differences between the Anglo-Saxon and Latin races, and more specifically, between the Anglican and Catholic churches. This all made a bit more sense to me when, having finished the novel, I finally looked into the author … and …

… surprise! Lucas Malet turned out to be no gentleman, but the pseudonym of Mary St Leger Kingsley (1852-1931), daughter of Charles Kingsley of The Waterbabies fame, and daughter and wife of Anglican clergymen. This went a long way towards explaining not only the underlying religious subject matter, but also the detailed discussions of costume and makeup we find throughout the book, which include a wonderful dragon-patterned silk shawl that becomes a signature feature of one of the characters, and which I craved just from ‘Malet’s’ tantalising descriptions – a search on Ebay turned up this wonderful photograph of something similar, unfortunately sold long ago, but isn’t it fabulous?

So, The Far Horizon is an enjoyable read, with plenty to reveal about how ‘Spanishness’ was made meaningful in a particular Edwardian context. Now I’ve read and enjoyed it, I’m probably going to have to dig into  the religious context of early 20th-century, middle-class London in order to make proper sense of it and incorporate it into the project. But before that, I’m setting up an Ebay search for another dragon-patterned silk shawl…

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