I was delighted by Warwick Collins’ slim novel Gents recently, and so I leapt at the chance to discover some of his more substantial fare. Prominent among these are the two novels in his unfinished trilogy set in his home town of Lymington at the close of the 18th century, The Rationalist (1993) and The Marriage of Souls (1999). My general low tolerance for historical fiction meant I approached The Rationalist with fingers crossed in trust.
It concerns Dr Silas Grange, an ascetic man of reason and controlled appetites. He treats his patients, he lives comfortably with the assistance of his housekeeper Mrs Thompson, he gazes out over the Solent to the Isle of Wight beyond. His life is orderly, like the calm and quiet Hampshire landscape on which the story rests. A man of the Enlightenment through and through, he is (as he puts it) ‘not devout’ – or to put it another way, his polemic on religion would put Richard Dawkins to shame:
‘Reason does not proceed by confirmation, but by contradiction. We know nothing of our arguments until we have heard the opposite. That is, sir, where I disagree with the religionists, who in the main are infuriated by any statement which is the opposite of what they themselves choose to believe. If I may draw a difference between myself and them, it is not simply a case of my believing something else, but the methods I use to ascertain the truth of what I believe.’
(And the relevance today of references to the battle between reason and religion can hardly be missed, perhaps even more so than in the fourteen years since the novel was published.)
But Dr Grange is about to find that when it comes to reason against emotion, the body has a mind of its own. This is achieved through the medium of Mrs Celia Quill, a lady of ‘grace’ and ‘very fine intelligence’ who has recently moved to the area. The extraordinary transformation in Grange’s behaviour which she not so much persuades as seduces him to undertake, cannot be revealed without spoiling the story, though fans of Alan Bennett will have seen his Miss Fozzard experience a similar awakening in Talking Heads.
There are two features of The Rationalist which particularly impress. First, Collins eschews the usual pastiche of language of the period, preferring a plain style which better reflects both the serene beauty of the ever-present landscape, and the calm expansiveness of Grange’s mind. And yet what’s remarkable is that this detached and cool prose twists its way into the reader’s soul with almost embarrassing ease. The early scene of crude surgery will have you clenching the pages in tightened fists, and when Grange sat down to his meal of ‘rich bloody beef’ with his colleague Hargood, I had a piercing hunger by the end of their gluttonous feast.
Hargood is the second outstanding quality of the book, or rather his combative relationship with Grange is. The two are fast friends, and sworn foes on philosophy, ethics and even branches of medicine. And it is their long conversations, inevitably over those endless banquets of blood-dripping meat, which provide the greatest intellectual food of the novel. They balance one another out:
‘Think of it, Hargood, to conduct one’s life by means of logic, rather than the emotions. If that were only possible. To be driven by the intellect, rather than the senses.’
‘But without the senses, there is no intellect. That is the mistake of those revolutionaries on the other side of the Channel. The intellect alone is a loose gun. It ends up by destroying those who would deploy it.’
I could easily have devoured another book’s worth of this fine combination of ideas and energy. And, with The Marriage of Souls awaiting, I hope I shall have the chance to do so very soon.