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J. G. Farrell: Troubles

J G Farrell had considerable success in the 1970s with his trilogy of novels called the Empire Trilogy, dealing with the decline and fall of the British Empire. The second one in the series won the Booker Prize (as it was then called). This one did not win at the time, as Booker changed the rules, so there was no prize for novels published in 1970. However, Man Booker decided to award it retrospectively in 2010 and this novel won for that missing year, though Farrell had been dead for over thirty years by then.

The Big House novel is an Irish phenomenon. It tells the story of a the big house, owned by the rich Anglo-Irish, primarily Protestant English-speaking landowners, surrounded by poor, usually Catholic Irish-speaking peasants. In the twentieth century it took on a new aspect, with the peasants being more menacing than in earlier novels, and often ending in the big house being burnt to the ground, and the owners dying or fleeing. There are several big house novels on this site and links to them can be found in the article mentioned in he first sentence of this paragraph. Though English (albeit with an Irish mother, and often resident in Ireland), Farrell, in this book, has written a big house novel, with an English rather than Anglo-Irish protagonist.

Our hero is Major Brendan Archer. His parents are dead and neither he nor his parents had siblings so he has no relatives, except for an elderly aunt in London. He had served in World War I (the novel essentially starts right at the end of that war) but has suffered from what we would now call post-traumatic stress disorder and had been invalided out of the army. During a leave, he had gone to Brighton where he had met Angela Spencer. They had started writing to one another and, to Archer’s surprise, she writes to him as though they are engaged. He had no recollection of having proposed to her.

When he is invalided out, he goes to visit his aunt and then go on to Ireland to see Angela. Angela’s father, Edward Spencer (the sort of man who in peacetime looks rather out of place, like a heavy fur coat on a hot summer’s day) was Anglo-Irish and had bought the Majestic Hotel in the fictitious town of Kilnalough, in County Wexford. In its day, the hotel had been a grand hotel, visited by the rich from Ireland and England. Those days, however, are long past, and it survives on summer visitors, often elderly ladies, some of whom are unable to pay their bills. Spencer is too much of a gentleman to turn them out.

Things go wrong from the start. Archer was expecting to be met at the station but, when he arrives, there is no-one there. He is just about to give up, when Ripon turns up and introduces himself as Angela’s brother. Archer and Angela had exchanged a voluminous correspondence, in which Angela described in great detail her life and the people of the village but she had never mentioned having a brother.

On arrival at the hotel, he is left on his own and again wonders what to do. He eventually tracks down Angela in the conservatory having tea with some of the elderly ladies. After tea, he is left to his own devices, even to the extent of finding a room for himself (I should aim for a room up there somewhere around the third floor…that part of the place is in reasonable condition by the look of it, says Ripon), the large hotel having many empty rooms. He sees Angela at dinner but she continued to treat him as a casual acquaintance. Very soon, she disappears. Only by chance does he learn that she is ill and cannot be disturbed.

Meanwhile, there is trouble, as the title of the book tells us. There are attacks on the police and various acts of sabotage. People are killed. Edward Spencer and his friends are convinced that all Shinners (i.e. members of Sinn Fein) should be shot and go hunting them. They are also convinced that the Irish are incapable of ruling themselves and sensible Irish people want to remain British.

Where this novel really excels is firstly at showing how blind Edward Spencer and his friends are as regards the situation and the feelings of the native population and, secondly, at comparing the hotel with the British Empire or, at least, the British rule of Ireland.

Despite staying there a long time, Archer never really finds his way around the hotel, which is full of mazes, hidden rooms and mysterious passages. Indeed, there seems to be only one person who can find his way around, Murphy, the increasingly insane and decidedly peculiar major-domo, who pops up and disappears like some ghost. More particularly, we slowly watch the hotel fall apart. Mould creeps in. Plants and fungi grow in rooms. Bits fall off at will. Wild cats roam and breed throughout the hotel. Farrell cleverly treats these events as both humorous but, at the same time, as symbolic of the state of both the hotel and of British rule in Ireland. More interestingly, no-one, apart from Archer, seems to care or even react to any of these events.

There are other interesting characters in the book. Sarah, a young woman who is Catholic but more or less gentry and a friend of Angela, appears in a wheelchair (she eventually recovers). When Angela seems no longer available, Archer turns his attentions to her. However, her cynicism is something he finds difficult. Faith and Charity are Spencer’s two other children, teenage twins who are close to being monstrous (Their mother had died a few years back so they are virtually left on their own). In the second part of the book, the Black and Tans move in, creating their own havoc.

Archer himself is something of a feeble character, no doubt the standard English gentleman, unable to cope with the chaos and uncertainty around him and only really able to muddle through. He is clearly meant to be representative of the English in their dealings with their Empire, trying to be fair and expecting everyone else to play by the rules and unable to accept reality when they do not. However, as a good Englishman, he does more or less surive intact, having muddled through as a good Englishman should.

This really is a superb book and illustrates in a most effective way the end of Empire, at least as far as Ireland is concerned (though there are various references throughout the book to problems elsewhere in the Empire). Farrell brilliantly uses the hotel and its inhabitants as symbols of the crumbling British Empire and shows the whole picture through the eyes of the standard bumbling but essentially decent Englishman, who really does not have a clue what is happening. As in many good novels, the picture is enhanced by an interesting support cast, from the evil twins to the cynical Sarah, from the rough and brutal Black and Tanners to Edward Spencer, the last hold-out of the Empire. The book deservedly won the Lost Booker and deserves to maintain the reputation it had in the 1970s.

Publishing history

First published 1970 by Jonathan Cape