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Past Caring by Robert Goddard (St. Martin's: $19.95; 501 pp.)

January 25, 1987| Alan Bell | Bell is Librarian of Rhodes House, Oxford, and a regular reviewer in Literary Review and the TLS. and

Although much of this long and intricate first novel by Robert Goddard is concerned with the past and its reverberations for the present, it would be wrong to think of it as historical fiction. The historical side touches so much on the way in which historians view their evidence that "historiographical novel" would be a better, though more ponderous, definition. Fortunately, there is much more to it than a desiccated exercise in documentary assessment, as the mysterious evidence it deals with involves a good deal of action, and violent action at that.

Much of the plot turns on the rediscovery of the manuscript autobiography, written in 1950, of a forgotten English politician whose career came to an end in unexplained circumstances shortly before World War I. The newly found memoir is printed in full here, in great blocks of italic type that leave the reader's head cocked slightly to the right in an alert and quizzical position that suits a text for which only a modest suspension of disbelief is required.

One wonders, perhaps, whether Edwin Strafford rose a little too quickly in British politics to become home secretary at the unusually early age of 32. Less plausible, too, is the fact that Special Branch police scrutiny was lax enough to allow the minister of the crown responsible for public order to conduct a discreet flirtation with an alluring young Suffragette, just at the time when women's suffrage violence was becoming a major issue: Surely some private warning from Cabinet colleagues would have been called for.

Modest reservations like these can easily be accommodated 60 years later, however, to leave open the question of why Strafford was so abruptly thrown over by the girl to whom he had become engaged, and why his resignation was so readily accepted by Prime Minister Asquith. These events, which left Strafford himself puzzled at the time, intrigue the new owner of the manuscript, a somewhat mysterious South African hotelier on the island of Madeira, who engages an unemployed English history teacher to help solve the problems.

The South African's motives are far from clear (though close attention to the Boer War sections of Strafford's autobiography will provide some clues), especially when it turns out that the memoir parallels its investigator's own shady career in a rather disconcerting way. Whatever lies behind the patron's whim, it soon becomes obvious that Strafford's fall was personally and politically sensitive enough to have provoked a series of often violent suppressions that only add to the mystery.

The new document matches so well a taste prevalent among historians of recent English politics for day-to-day analysis of parliamentary intrigue, that Martin Radford, the hired amateur, is inevitably drawn back to his old university, Cambridge, for special guidance. There he finds a young woman historian working on the Suffragettes, elegant in dress and mind, who in turn advises, fascinates, excites and "devours" him. Even she, a prodigy of research in the archives, is not all she seems, and her urgent needs for publication and tenure overcome her scholarly scruples--so she tempts, manipulates, seduces and deceives. Martin, himself, no paragon on virtue, is no luckier with other friends, who often prove to be devious operators matching some of the sleazier individuals in Strafford's own career.

The only consistently admirable character in the book is the Suffragette fiancee, still alive in her 80s. Though a little frail in body, she has an independence and charity of spirit that set her apart from her dead husband and her children, a bunch of bullies and parasites intent on suppressing a half-understood truth. When confronted with unpalatable facts, this gallant old lady is neither bitter nor fearful of knowing the whole truth, however guarded she must be in revealing the details. It is she who provides generously for Radford's maintenance following the stiff jail sentence into which his incautious excursion into historical research has led him--though even here, as with Strafford, withdrawal to the idyllic surroundings of Madeira scarcely brings complete peace of mind.

"Past Caring" is rather overambitiously conceived. It falls between being a straight novel in which character and motive are the prime target, and a mystery in which the conundrum and its unraveling mean that plot increasingly takes over from the niceties of individual character delineation. The later chapters, in which the denouement is talked out in the formulas of an English country-house detective story, are too much at variance with earlier attempts at more refined assessments of Strafford's mysterious original fall from political prominence.

Much is made of the problems of historical authenticity and historians' motives, of "editing the truth" and "setting history straight." This is in fact too much for the convolutions of a rapidly accelerating murder plot. There are sufficient unexpected twists, however, in both the historical and the contemporary narrative, to make it clear that (as for Oscar Wilde in "The Importance of Being Earnest") "the truth is never pure, and rarely simple."

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