Sir Harry Vyell

A character whose portrayal stands in marked contrast to that of Squire Moyle is baronet Sir Harry Vyell. In the dedication Q reveals the basis of Vyell as a fox-hunter, who lived near Liskeard, as described in Collier’s memoir of Harry Terrell. In The Ship of Stars Sir Harry Vyell and his son George are introduced in Chapter VI, ‘A Cock-fight’. The immediate impression given to the reader is that Vyell is on the material and cultural level of Squire Moyle, an uneducated country landowner. He initially uses Moyle’s dialect, ‘Just to comfort ‘ee now’, and succumbs to the same crude pleasures. Yet his secularism and his ability to cynically manipulate Moyle’s sensibilities show him to be an altogether more sophisticated character. Gradually we learn how he is Oxford educated, keeps a library and is tended by impeccable servants. Country sports and the democracy of the hunting field save him from overmuch aristocratic stiffness. Nor is he too grand to engage in or enjoy buffoonery. Vyell’s innocent merriment at the Plymouth pantomime in Chapter XII is in contrast to his not so innocent bating of Moyle in Chapter VI. Knowing how the Squire is unable to resist a sporting challenge, Sir Harry deliberately brings a fighting cock to Tredinnis on a Sunday. Moyle quickly surrenders, in spite of the pricks of conscience, is humiliated by defeat and doubly humiliated through the sudden appearance of the Rev. Raymond. With an ashen Moyle clutching his bible, Vyell tumbles the youngsters out of the window, while remaining within just long enough to enjoy the discomfiture of the squire. The buffoonery cloaks the calculated cruelty of the baronet.

Following the cock-fight Sir Harry Vyell becomes a figure heard off-stage for the next six chapters, covering a period of over two years. This is an idyllic time for George, Honoria and Taffy, but a troubled one for Moyle. The conclusion comes with the reintroduction of Sir Harry in Chapter XII. He proposes taking Taffy and George to Plymouth for a production of Jack the Giant Killer. After the restricted religious world of the parsonage, the vibrance and freedom of the theatre captures Taffy’s imagination. At the same time he becomes increasingly aware of a secular culture to which the Vyells belong but the Raymonds do not. The city with its horse-races, hotels, warships and nightlife is Sir Harry’s world. He is able to surrender to it as the more puritanical Taffy is not. Yet below the gaiety there is the whiff of corruption, symbolised in the playing cards abandoned amongst the drained glasses. The Plymouth episode is a brilliant vignette, with Q capturing the essence of the city, while exercising a remarkable economy of words.

Sir Harry’s hedonistic character shows its most attractive and generous side in the pantomime chapter. His underlying irresponsibility is not fully exposed until Chapter XXII. Taffy has returned from Oxford surrounded by allegations of having fathered a child by Lizzie Pezzack. On learning of Honoria’s financial contributions to his education, along with rumours circulated by George, he goes to Carwithiel, only to find the couple absent. In need of mature advice and with his father dead, Taffy decides to consult Sir Harry, who is indulging himself on a luncheon of cutlets and claret. Sir Harry seeks a discussion of Oxford, his old university, not the disagreeable topic which troubles Taffy. The consequences of profligacy with the lower orders is of little interest to him, so that he is unable to comprehend the young man’s concern. The discussion ends with little satisfaction on either side. It is only later that the reader learns the true significance of the whole episode. The child whom Sir Harry is so easily dismissing happens to be his own grandson, and with the subsequent death of George the only direct descendant he will ever have. Q could not have shown up Sir Harry in sharper relief.

While throughout the novel Q presents Squire Moyle in an increasingly bizarre way, the personality of Sir Harry attains delineation and realism. One of the most devastating scenes in the novel involves him, with the restraint and brevity of the writing adding to its power. Following the death of George, Sir Harry’s only son, an inquest is held. Sir Harry attends, giving a nod and taking snuff as the verdict is given. At the funeral, which as a religious  service could mean nothing to him, he is an anonymous mourner. The scene moves to Tree-barrow Brake, where Squire Willyams, who has taken over the hounds, has arranged a hunt to follow the funeral breakfast. Leaving the gates of Carwithiel the mourners remove their black hat-bands before crossing the valley. To their amazement Sir Harry follows suit. This brings forth a character portrait from the conversation of one of the hunters. Sir Harry is a heartless and unfeeling atheist, who was reared in French free-thinking circles. Squire Willyams, discomfited by the accurate yet insensitive comment, demands a proper silence. It is unavailing and under questioning Sir Harry reveals how he fears nothing so much as solitude. Sir Harry’s world of secular materialism is exposed as spiritually dead, with the debonair gentleman defenceless in the face of tragedy. Little could Q guess how twenty years hence he too would face the loss of an only son in the influenza epidemic of 1919. It is to Q’s credit that although he is aware of Vyell’s shallowness, he presents the character with sympathy. This gives the tragedy a special edge. It stands in marked contrast to Q’s treatment of Moyle.