Introducing Troy Town: a study

Introduction

The Astonishing History of Troy Town, Q’s second novel, was published in 1888 by Cassell of London, the publisher of Dead Man’s Rock. It was dedicated to Charles Cannon, who appears from the dedication to have provided Q with useful criticism. The work dates from Q’s London years, 1887 to early 1892. It was a period of unusual aloneness, as he had left his mother and sisters in Oxford and had not yet married his fiancée, Louisa Amelia Hicks of Fowey. He was 24 and intent upon making a career for himself in the metropolis as a novelist and literary journalist.

Troy Town is set in Fowey. The Fowey valley had cast a spell upon him from his earliest view of it; but so had the Helford, the setting for Dead Man’s Rock. It was his marriage into a Fowey family which cemented his links with the town, and then only after his failure to settle in London. Maybe it was the financial success of Troy Town which facilitated his removal to Fowey on a permanent basis.

The novel is Fowey seen from a distance. Much of the work must have been written in London when he was insufficiently occupied in journalistic work for radical publications. It is impossible to discern from it the beginnings of the psychological problems which in early 1892 led him to consult a specialist. The novel is less a reflection on his own disquietude as an attempt to escape from it.

Brittain saw Troy Town as the celebration of an ‘Arcadian past’. If so, it was the immediate past, although echoes of an earlier time are discernible. Even in small towns individuals live at varying speeds. The etiquette Q was satirising, summed up in the word ‘cumeelfo’, derived from the influence on Fowey of the Great Exhibition in London of 1851, as is explained in Chapter I. It appears to be an early form of political correctness. The action is set 20 years later. How far ‘cumeelfo’ actually existed in Fowey is debatable.

‘Cumeelfo’ appears to be the product of a certain level of society – one from which his future mother-in-law derived. Rowse points out that Mrs. Hicks did not approve of her daughter’s relationship with a doctor’s son. Whether Mrs. Hicks was fully informed about Q’s political views is not known. Maybe there was more to Q’s satire than at first appears.

When the Duchy edition of Q’s fiction started to come out in 1928, he was a very different man from what he had been 40 years before. The First World War had undermined his radicalism, the Liberal Party was in serious decline and he never properly recovered from the death of his son in the flu epidemic of 1919. The ‘Duchy’ prefaces show him quietly withdrawing from the positions he had previously taken, in an attempt to tone down their radical edge. Whether Troy Town was intended as light satire, as the preface suggests, is open to question. As the issues he was addressing have largely lost their force, it may appear so.

Leonard Courtney

One issue, however, has not lost its force, quite the reverse, and that is terrorism. The activities of Frederic and Geraldine Goodwyn-Sandys, which shatter the tranquil innocence of Troy, are examples of what is still occurring. The Troy incident can almost certainly be dated to Gladstone’s Second Ministry from 1880 to 1886, with its Irish legislation, the demand for Irish Home Rule by Charles Parnell and the Phoenix Park murders of May 1882. The evidence points to the calendar year of 1881. 

Q might well have heard the inside story of this, near to the time or later, from Leonard Courtney, Liberal MP for Liskeard. Courtney was Under-Secretary for the Home Office, under Sir William Harcourt, from 25th December 1880, and Secretary of the Treasury from May 1882 until his resignation on 1st December 1884. John Courtney (1804-1881), Leonard’s father, was a Penzance banker and was born in Ilfracombe. Like Q, he was half Devonian.

In 1879 and 1880 Thomas Q. Couch, Q’s father, and Margaret Ann Courtney, Leonard’s sister, were working on a Glossary of Words in Use in Cornwall (1880).

The families of Courtney and Couch probably first became acquainted when Richard Q. Couch set up a medical practice in Penzance. Leonard Courtney (1832-1918) belonged from 1845 to 1851 to the organisations of which Richard was a leading light. As Leonard was a Liberal and an Anglican and represented Liskeard in parliament, a direct connection with Thomas and Q himself is not unlikely. Q dedicated The Ship of Stars (1899) to Leonard Courtney.

We can be reasonably certain that the plot of Troy Town can be dated to 1881. Q will not again take a period so close to his own until Foe-Farrell of 1918, his last completed novel.

Weaknesses in the Novel

Brittain believed Troy Town to be one of Q’s finest novels and was disconcerted at Q’s contrary opinion. One obvious weakness is in characterisation. While the sophisticated characters are convincingly drawn, with Geraldine Goodwyn-Sandys outstandingly portrayed, the Cornish working-class characters are not. Until Q settled permanently in Fowey, his contact with Cornish working people was limited, as so much of his life had been spent ‘abroad’, across the Tamar.

He idealises and sentimentalises the Dearloves, using them as a foil to the sophistication and corruption of the Goodwyn-Sandys and the vanity of Admiral Buzza. Chapter VII opens with Admiral Buzza in full dress, and his three daughters sporting enormous, yellow straw hats, entering ‘The Bower’ to welcome the supposed aristocrats. Admiral Buzza addresses Geraldine as Gladstone is said to have addressed Queen Victoria, as though she were a public meeting. The atmosphere changes with the entry of Sam Buzza, the gauche son of the Admiral, who is swiftly seduced by the charm of Geraldine. He will later be the innocent accomplice in her nefarious activities. The Misses Buzza are dazzled by Geraldine’s sophistication, as is Admiral Buzza by her supposed status. With the Buzzas under her influence, Troy lies at her irresponsible mercy. The last glimpse we have of Geraldine is in the moonlight at Five Roads Junction. This is where the present A3082 crosses the B3269, near Newtown. Frederic and Geraldine are in flight and their chaise stops only long enough at the junction for Sam Buzza and Mr. Moggridge to become fully aware of the folly of their infatuation with the perfumed and mirthful woman.

Q's Descriptive Power

A feature of the novel, one looking forward to his later work, is its descriptive power. This is particularly true when applied to the valley of the Fowey, a ria in its lower part and a moorland stream in its upper. This power is also seen in his ability to capture the moods of the port of Fowey. The initial paragraphs of Chapter III show the port returning to normal after the non-arrival of the Goodwyn-Sandys, with the sound of mallets, the rattle of chains, the landing of bricks and the working of the windlass. Q has the ability of taking even the modern reader back to a former time as though it is a living and continuing reality.

In Chapter III a schooner, with its cargo of bricks, is moored on the quay below the ‘King o’ Prooshia’ or the ‘King of Prussia’ public house. It is while drinking in the house that Caleb Trotter and Mr. Fogo get to know each other. Their conversation introduces the reader to Kit’s House and the Dearloves. The public house is not named after Frederick the Great of Prussia but John Carter, the ‘King’ of Prussia Cove on Mounts Bay. Richard and John Q. Couch would have known the descendants of the famous Carter family. Q celebrates them in the short story ‘King O’ Prussia’ from ‘The White Wolf’ (1902), and refers to them in a number of novels. It was by the quay, below the public house, that privateers like the Carters and the Quillers brought their prizes to be auctioned before and during the Napoleonic War. Captain Henry Carter (1749-1829), brother to John Carter, was imprisoned in Brittany, where he owned property, during the ‘Terror’ and left an account of his experiences. It is almost certain that the Quillers and the Carters had business dealings. Q was certainly aware of the significance of this quay. His feel for the river and the quays which over-look it has deep roots. As with many Cornish people Q saw the present through a glass of the infinite past. Q was a Cornish not an in-migrant writer.

Another feature of the novel is Q’s ability at placing farcical characters in realistic settings. In Chapter X, the absurd Mr. Fogo rambles along the eastern bank of the River Fowey – the area between Mixtow Pill and Penpoll Creek. He gets lost, drifts off to sleep, encounters a bull, has a fracas with a tramp, frightens a little girl and is eventually led to safety by Tamsin Dearlove. Between the farcical incidents are vivid descriptions of Fowey harbour, a riverside field being worked by a plough-boy and a charging bull. Q is describing what he knows from direct experience. This grounding prevents the satire from disappearing into the absurd.

Caleb Trotter

In the course of the novel Caleb Trotter tells four stories, three of them brief. The fourth takes up the whole of Chapter XI. It is unrelated to the plot, involves characters unheard of again, and includes place names – Carne Hill, over a mile to the east of Fowey; Penhellick, a farm in the parish of St. Pinnock far to the north-east, although Penpillick north of Tywardreath might be intended; and Plymouth – all outside of the Troy/Fowey area.

The story centres on Caleb’s time as a farm labourer working for Farmer Menear of Penhillick. Menear is also a circuit-preacher, the early name for a minister of the Wesleyan Methodists. At some point Menear establishes his own denomination, the United Free Church of Original Succeeders. The details seem of little consequence, except for the fact that Q’s grandfather, Dr. Jonathan Couch of Polperro, succeeded on two occasions, firstly from Anglicanism in 1814, and secondly from Wesleyan Methodism in about 1835. In the second instance, he established at the foot of Calvinist Steps in Polperro, where a lintel can still be seen, a chapel of the breakaway Wesleyan Methodist Association, later the United Methodist Free Church. The parallels are obvious. The rest of the Menear chapter satirises Methodism in a way Jonathan Couch would have found distasteful.

Although Q revered his grandfather, he could never accommodate himself to Methodism. In all his fictional works, starting with Dead Man’s Rock, he portrays Methodist Meeting Houses in a negative light. Rowse was well aware of Q’s feelings towards Nonconformity.

Although Troy Town is seen as a light, humorous novel, and the preface of the Duchy edition supports this, there is more to it than first meets the eye.