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The Little Iliad

August 5, 2008

A while back I found a really good bunch of advertisements  in the back of a Carolyn Wells  mystery novel–maybe The White Alley?–one of which was for The Little Iliad, by Maurice Hewlett. The ad was particularly funny because it promised both a modern retelling of the Iliad and a happy ending. I came across a copy of the book at the place where I was staying this weekend, and in spite of a full complement of family reunion-y activities, I managed to finish it before we left on Sunday morning.

I started off by not liking it much. There was a friend-of-the-main-character sort of narrator, which often turns out badly–that kind of character is so often a nonentity, and an excuse to use first-person narration in a story that doesn’t want it. The main character he was friends with was Hector, and aside from the danger of naming characters after their Greek and Trojan counterparts, he looked like he might be really annoying.

And then it turned out all right. Hector is kind of silly, but the narrator is well aware of that–it is clear that he knows all of Hector’s faults, and while he is very fond of him, he doesn’t take him too seriously. From which it will be obvious that the narrator is a pretty decent character too, and he becomes involved enough in the story that he isn’t just a narrator of events, but a participant. As for the naming thing, the Helen character is named Helena and the Paris character’s name begins with a P, but that’s it. And the story doesn’t adhere too closely to the Iliad, although that was obvious from the promise of a happy ending.

Hector is the eldest son of Sir Roderick Malleson, who has a large estate in Scotland, which he rules as a sort of benevolent tyrant. Several generations previously, Euphemia,  a mistress of one of the Mallesons, cursed him on the occasion of his marriage, saying that the Mallesons would henceforth have no more daughters. She also owned the one piece of land in the area that did not belong to the Mallesons, and it has passed to her descendants, who refuse to sell it to Sir Roderick. The curse has held true up to the beginning of this story, and Sir Roderick has six grown sons. The ones that concern us are Hector, the twins Pierpoint (the rogue) and Wynyard (the hunter), and the youngest, Patrick. Nigel is a sailor and Spencer is a Catholic missionary, so they’re not really around.

Hector and his friend, the narrator, are staying at an Italian resort when Hector falls in love at first sight with Helena van Broderode, the Polish wife of an Austrian Baron. Hector falls in love frequently and dramatically, and when, about twenty minutes after first laying eyes on Helena, he realizes that she is married to a hulking, excessively materialistic cripple, he decides to spend the evening brooding on the shore of the lake.

Meanwhile, the narrator is introduced to the Broderodes by a friend named Chevenix and finds himself really impressed by the Baron, who has locomotor ataxia but is determined to control his limbs and refuses to admit any weakness. The book is full of sport and war metaphors used to describe the Baron, but my favorite comes late in the book, when the narrator says that although the Baron will eventually lose the battle, all his wounds will be in the front. Trite, yes, but it works here.

The next day, when Hector has finished brooding, he too is introduced to the Broderodes. He becomes friends with them, and it’s pretty obvious to everyone, including the Baron, that he’s in love with Helena. The Baron, in fact, is all the friendlier because he dislikes Hector so much. Hector, meanwhile, is convinced that Helena is unhappy, and manages to convince her that she is, too, which is what really makes the Baron angry. In spite of this, they appear to be good friends, and Hector invites the Broderodes to stay at his father’s castle.

Helena quickly wins over the Mallesons, and the Baron enjoys himself, too. Not much else happens on this visit except that Pierpoint, the handsome one, starts trying to make a conquest of Helena, which she doesn’t mind at all, and apparently kisses her at a party. Some time later, after the Broderodes’ visit has ended, the narrator hears that Pierpoint has given up his commission in the army, which he assumes means that Pierpoint plans to run away with Helena. Hector agrees, but while he’s not exactly happy about it, being in love with Helena himself, he would rather have her run away with someone than stay with the Baron, who he’s built up as a monster.

Then Wynyard goes to see Pierpoint and convinces him to leave Helena alone. But Helena really did want to leave the Baron (Hector having convinced her that she was unhappy with him), so she does, with a female friend. She starts traveling around Europe, followed sometimes by Pierpoint and always by the Baron, who we know does not give up easily. Helena has conceived an aversion to the Baron, and is really upset by him following her around, so she writes to Sir Roderick, asking him to sort of grant her asylum, I guess, which he does.

Helena is very happy with the Mallesons. By this time they’re all in love with her, and they treat her as if she was the daughter of the house denied to them by the curse. Even the servants adore her, except for Ethel the model housemaid, but eventually Helena wins her over too. Hector, of course, adores her and places her on a pedestal, Wynyard is passionately in love with her in a quiet, stoic kind of way. Pierpoint knows that she’s not really in love with him, which makes all his acquisitive instincts kick in, so that for the first time he’s really in love with her. Patrick and the narrator seem to feel similarly–they admit to each other that they’re in love with Helena, but in them it comes out as wanting to see her happy, and if that can happen while she’s with the Baron, they’re okay with that.

That becomes a bit of a problem for them when the Baron arrives and takes up residence at Euphemia’s house, which infuriates Sir Roderick and makes Helena kind of dithery –she keeps insisting that she ought to leave, but she obviously doesn’t want to. Pat and the narrator are a bright spot during this section. They’re the most clearheaded people there, and they like the Baron enough that they go and talk to him sometimes.

Meanwhile, Pierpoint is flirting with Helena again, which makes Wynyard furiously jealous. One night during a party, the narrator, who is standing on the terrace, sees Helena go out into the garden. A few minutes later, Pierpoint follows, but Wynyard comes out and tries to detain him. Ethel the pretty housemaid comes out to bring Helena a shawl, and Wynyard reveals that he knows that she is secretly Pierpoint’s wife. This is not a huge surprise, by the way, but the signals were pretty subtle. The narrator realizes that this was how Wynyard got Pierpoint to leave Helena alone in the first place.

So Pierpoint leaves, with pretty much everyone but Sir Roderick knowing why, and then Helena goes back to the Baron, taking Ethel with her. And then things begin to wrap up. We skip two years. The Baron dies. No one seems to be particularly sorry, but I’m giving Pat and the narrator the benefit of the doubt, because aside from them, he was the most likable character. Wynyard has moved to Florida and is growing oranges. Pierpoint has joined the Turkish army or something, and has become a general. He signals that he’s interested in re-wooing and marrying Ethel, and when that’s all been taken care of, Helena returns to the Mallesons. Hector proposes, not really meaning it. Wynyard, back on a visit, proposes, definitely meaning it and hoping Helena will come to Florida and take care of him and his oranges. Helena tells them both she’ll think about it. The narrator, not very convincingly, says he’s thinking about marrying her himself.

And then Helena marries Sir Roderick. And strangely enough, it is a happy ending. She’s happy, he’s happy, Hector isn’t discernibly upset. Wynyard kind of is, but he can live with it. The Baron has left Euphemia’s house to Sir Roderick in his will, so the curse is broken. Sir Roderick and Helena have a daughter and name her Euphemia.

All in all, this was a much better book than I expected it to be. It was mostly free of sentimental hooey, and just cynical enough that not taking it too seriously meant I was in on the joke, rather than making fun of it. And the scenes where Pat and the narrator visited the Baron were kind of delightful. I think I’m going to read other books by Maurice Hewlett, although I may try to steer clear of the historical novels, which focus on such figures as Richard I and Mary, Queen of Scots.

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