Tess the obscure

While it may not be a novel’s main purpose, certainly one of its pleasures can lie in how it witnesses the history of the form itself. All novels reveal something of the genealogy from which they emerge, their debt to past traditions and ways of storytelling. Rather as is the case with families, sometimes the further back you go the more striking the resemblance becomes.

Robert Hillman’s Joyful is most immediately a nineteenth-century novel, a detailed work that portrays an entire, sealed world of complex and ultimately connected storylines. The cultural setting is realised in a wonderfully rich Victorian style. Extended studies of social manners, quotes from journals and letters, and the aligning of characters with their passions for books, poetry and music, clothing, all produce a social world that is not only vivid but also ripe for commentary and debate. In this way, the work can stand as a tribute to the likes of Trollope and Hardy, and the combination of the personal and political that they perfected.

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Published in May 2014 no. 361

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