By Warwick Collins.
New York: Ballantine Books, 1993.
ISBN # 0-345-39185-3.
251 pages.

Comments of Bob Corbett
November 2004

Dr. Silas Grange is a shy, solitary physician living and working on the south central coast of England at Lymington. It is late 18th century and Dr. Grange regards himself as a rationalist, deeply committed to a life of reason, avoiding strong emotions and intuitions.

At the same time he is fascinated, nearly obsessed with the work of David Hume, particularly his thesis in An Essay on Human Understanding which argues that the intellect can only inform us, but that the will and action flow from our sentiments and emotions. Dr. Grange is fascinated, if repelled, by Hume’s arguments, but is intellectually honest enough to recognize Hume’s deeply challenging his rationalism.

Into the life of this steady, thoughtful, solitary man comes Mrs. Celia Quill. Recently divorced, and from an intellectual a notch above Grange, she possesses the polish of upper class culture.

She and Silas have met at several social gatherings. In the small town of Lymington Grange often found himself invited to such affairs. He was quietly attracted to the somewhat older widow and eventually she invited him to dinner.

After swearing Grange to silence on what she will say (a promise he rigorously honors in the whole novel) she makes a very long speech considering the place of women in society and her own bizarre plan to “awaken” them, and in the process free them. However, to achieve this goal she needs the cooperation and “services” of Grange.

Shocked by her boldness, openness, her message and plan, and rather flattered to be so needed, even beginning to fall in love with her, the innocent and hesitant Grange is slowly drawn into the plan.

He is never sure of himself and to address his concerns he enters into an intense dialogue on related philosophical and psychological questions with Hume’s text, often pulling it off the shelf, reading a passage and then trying to make sense of it in relation to his own life..

He also has a gentle but persistent critic – his dear friend, an older physician in the region, Dr. Hargood. Hargood doesn’t know what’s going on, but he is very suspicious of the changes he sees in Grange and he strongly suspects it is rooted in his growing relationship with Celia Quill He is never trustful of Quill who only arrived in Lymington three years earlier, with, he believes, some scandal left behind in London..

A fourth character, Mrs. Thompson plays a small role in the story but an important one. She is Grange’s housekeeper, a widow much older than Grange and a voice of propriety in a most subtle manner, but one which affects Grange, quietly calling him to caution.

Within this frame Warwick Collins weaves an erotic thriller filled with suspense, including a rather startling surprise in the last couple of lines of the novel.

The novel is beautifully written and very subtle. Quiet hints at early stages will cleverly emerge as important information later on. The suspense builds and it is almost impossible not to be drawn into the rather antiquated world of Collins’ 18th century morality. Much of the reader’s tensions with come because Collins makes us identify with and like the conservative caution of Silas Grange.

Much is achieved with innuendo and uncertainty, never fully expressed in words nor carried out in action. It is precisely this quality which allows for Silas’ ending bombshell in the last lines.

While I don’t want to say anything further about the plot, there were several other matters of special delight for me which weren’t clearly tied to the main plot. I’ll close with these glimpses of Collins’ writing.

Dr. Harwood is a rugged man, simple, a common sense fellow but of considerable wealth. He is constantly having Dr. Grange to dinner, and when he invites him a second time within a few days, Grange expresses some concern about being a burden. Hargood explains he’s just shot a large deer and wants to share. Grange then replies:

I am always prepared to be jackal to your lion.

In one of their dinner discussions on medicine Grange allows he is worried about a recent amputation he did on a sailor’s arm. Hargood argues that doctors must take risks and that some of them will fail. On his view they can’t let this get them down or deter them. Given our absurdly litigious world I found Hargood’s position quite attractive:

“Damn me, Silas – you must not be morbid. A doctor should feel no guilt. It is important for his well-being. We take risks for the sake of the patient’s health, and some of those attempts will fail. So be it. Afterwards we should sleep well.”

In a discussion between Silas and Celia, a fascinating notion about morality and religion was raised. The rich Mrs. Pugh in question is a Christian and Dr. Grange doesn’t believe in God or religion.

(Dr. Grange) “Mrs. Pugh, who I consider in many ways to be wise, made during dinner an interesting remark. She referred to her own religion, and to my lack of one, and she said that it was I, not she, who struggled with my soul.”

(Mrs. Quill) “You do not agree?” This was said with such simple clarity that for a moment Grange paused.

“On the contrary, madam, I know too well what she means. Lacking God does not entail the loss of one’s conscience. Indeed, without God to guide and forgive, the struggle with the conscience becomes more terrible.”
Bob Corbett

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Bob Corbett