Fate by L.R. Fredericks
This was an odd, if comprehensive, novel. The fact that it covers more or less the entire 18th century shows its ambitions. Its epic scale is somewhat lessened by the meandering narrative and a curious lack of pace. I found myself wondering by the end what the previous book in the loosely connected series, Farundell, was like and if it shed any more light on this curious way of constructing a novel.
Fate is the life and life-after-death of Francis Damory, an English aristocrat whose “fate” entwines him with the study of alchemy and the seeking of immortality. So, no, he is not a vampire, he is not a ghost; he has more in common with Nicholas Flamel in Harry Potter. He is a sympathetic narrator whose past is littered with fragments of famous figures and landmark fiction of the 18th century; I was gratified to see in the Select Bibliography some books I have read. All of Fate is highly mysterious and begins with 17-year-old Francis glimpsing a strange book which links to a dream he had as a child of his ancestor Tobias Damory. His parents’ disapproval of his wish to study alchemy like Tobias has overtones of Frankenstein’s stumbling around Agrippa; his sexual education throughout the book, begun by his brother Sebastian, is shaded by Casanova’s memoirs. His encounter with the haunting Contessa feels like an episode from Madame LePrince de Beaumont’s Beauty and the Beast (if heavily eroticized!).
The first third of the book was the most interesting to me; I enjoyed reading about Damory’s time at Oxford, meeting social misfit and chemist Purefroy as well as neo-pagan Meryll, alchemist Enderby, bookish Agnes and his lower class love, Johanna. However, this section of the book ended with an abrupt, violent episode which truly shocked and disturbed me. I kind of wanted to stop reading at this point, but I soldiered on.
Back in London, Francis’ sister Isabel’s great social experiment, the New Eden school for urchins, unfortunately demonstrates the fallibility of humanity and leaves many threads unresolved. Francis falls in love with a castrato. The rest of the book sees Francis moving through Europe and the East, from decadent Paris to Constantinople, between shipwreck and magical islands off the coast of Venice. Like much of 18th century literature, it is obsessed with incest. It’s a huge tapestry of many threads of a great swathe of the world at this time, incorporating characters as diverse as conjoined twins and American heiresses.
I think Fate could almost be described as a Naturalistic novel despite its many varied and fantastic occurrences. I say this, because although Sister Carrie, for example, had an overarching theme, its structure was not the dramatic one of most novels. It was much like a word-of-mouth story related to you by someone gossiping, or writing in her journal. “This happened. Then this happened. Then this happened. I thought this. Then this happened.” If Francis Damory purports to be the sum total of his life, it is a still a life related at almost real-time speed, glossing over very little. Pages and pages passed and I thought Damory must be 15 years older but, no, only 2 or 3 years had passed. In this, it felt quite different from The Anatomy of Ghosts, set in a similar time frame, with similar concerns, and even a similar setting (Cambridge instead of Oxford).